Yesterday was graduation. For upwards of 300 seniors, it marked entry into that oft-spoken of "real world." Because I was around for Residence Life duties (check-outs, cleaning the residence hall, etc.) I was asked by visitors and other campus drifters my plans for next year. "I don't have to know yet," I say. Because even next year, I don't have to know. As in the airport, I could be nowhere. Or I could be everywhere. Now, or when I graduate, or twenty years in the future.
It's been a good, hard, trying, challenging and amazing year, as most are bound to be if you were to make a list of their landmarks. And it would be easy to see getting on an airplane as an escape, to force myself into something New. But there's been an equipping this year, so that I am prepared to embark on my first-ever domestic flight and my first-ever time flying on my own. I imagine that's the gist of any commencement address and the goal of any speaker--to let graduates know that they have been PREPARED. It's the goal of any beginning, too--so that freshman and senior alike can feel safe up in the turbulent air that is any new experience.
As a variation on Southwest airline's slogan goes-you are now free to move...everywhere.
Peace this season, and godspeed.
Speaking of celebrating, 21st birthdays, it was my roommate Anna's 21st on Saturday, so we spent midnight at a nearby restaurant with a group of friends (ten loud girls arriving at a restaurant ten minutes before the kitchen closes=priceless. Be nice to your waitresses.). the next day I took Anna into Gloucester, a nearby fishing town (actually the location of the movie "The Perfect Storm") for lunch. We found a Portuguese restaurant and settled in for Bifana and another thing I can't quite remember the name of. DELICIOUS. I think I'd do quite well in Portugal. An art major, I thought she'd love to go to the art studio my floor frequented so often in the Fall, and my friend Dave was more than excited to show us around and update even me on the goings on. He's waiting to hear back from a $28,000 grant, and if he gets it is planning to expand the facilities! There are murals all around, too, testifying to the community's shared sense of struggle and identity that is valued highly enough to be displayed on alleyways and store walls.
"That's why Camilla and I got married, " said Denniston as they drove off. "We both like Weather. Not this or that kind of weather, but just Weather. It's a useful taste if one lives in England."
"How ever did you learn to do that, Mr. Denniston?" said Jane. "I don't think I should ever learn to like rain and snow."
"It's the other way around," said Denniston. "Everyone begins as a child by liking Weather. You learn the art of disliking it is you grown up. Noticed it on a snowy day? The grown-ups are all going about with long faces, but look at the children - and the dogs? They know what snow's made for."
"I'm sure I hated wet days as a child," said Jane.
"That's because the grown-ups kept you in," said Camilla. "Any child loves rain if allowed to go out and paddle about in it."
I was particularly struck by this in a sermon and a small experience I had on Sunday. Again I ventured into Boston to go to Park Street Church, this time with a group of girls from my floor. We were speaking in the car of disabilities, as one of my girls' sisters has severe dyslexia and has struggled for years with learning how to read, something I so flippantly regard as simple. Park Street Church was celebrating Enable Boston Sunday this particular day, a day to remember those in the congregation and greater Boston area who struggle with all sorts of disabilities. One woman gave a testimony, speaking of her son's head injury that has since left him with severe short-term memory loss, an inability to speak, and myriad other supposed "disabilities." Mrs. McLeod, however, spoke to her son's strange interactions with God, telling us stories of finding her son awake at 3 in the morning, praying at the side of his bed. Pastor Gordon Hugenberger then got up and spoke on Ehud, a man disabled in his right hand yet who used his right hand to slay the evil Moabite king (Judges 3 v 12-30). He then pointed out that we all suffer from a certain disability--the disability of sleep. We are all limited by this crazy one third of our lives that we spend asleep. Depriving ourselves of sleep is psychologically damaging at best, fatal at worst. He pointed out the Scripture that says:
Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”
(1 Corinthians 1:26-31)
I left the church in a weird mood. Moving forward with my group's lunch plans--a visit to an improvisational restaurant called "Fire and Ice," which lets you watch your (unlimited) choice of raw vegetables, meats, pastas, etc. and sauce be cooked by master chefs on a giant center flat grill. I was waiting for a brunch omelette to be prepared when there was a little commotion beside me. A group of disabled adults from a home in Boston had come to Fire and Ice on a field trip, and the man next to me didn't realize that you're not supposed to mix your sauce with your food before giving it to the chef. It makes the food more flavourful and easier to cook if the sauce is added to the mix toward the end, and so while the chef gently suggested that Tom (the man next to me) hold onto his sauce the next time so he could enjoy an even yummier plate, Tom just couldn't process what was being said to him, and he looked at me with the most sorrowful expression of guilt--what had he done wrong?? And so I gently and more slowly explained what I thought the chef was trying to say. Perhaps he was grateful for my kind voice, or perhaps he was just excited to talk to someone (and show off his nifty ID card:-)), but his genuine appreciation--difficult as it was for him to express in more than a huge smile--was so overwhelming that I had to go to the bathroom to cry for a few minutes.
I think humility is a miracle. I think I tend SO MUCH toward pride and arrogance that any small act of gratefulness toward me that drives me to my modest knees can't be part of the way I naturally function. In all my egoism and smugness as to how much knowledge I've accrued in my short time here, I'm still at the mercy of God, and how much he knows about what I truly care about. That he knows me so well to bless me as he wills and to show me the depths of my sin--I can think of no other word than miracle, natural or otherwise.
I had a lovely weekend, full of friends and coffee dates (Panera’s greek salads and ciabatta bread—that I made into Garlic bread—are AMAZING) and movies (The Two Towers) and piano concerts (sigh), and could easily post more fully on any one of those, but instead I want to write about a dream I had last night. I dream often, and most of them are very very strange. One, for example, involved a professor waking me up to give me the answer to one of my deepest questions, one involved a physical plant worker trying to “talk to his daughter” after visiting hours, and another one has involved my chiropractor coming to the Gordon library to talk about the results of X-Rays I had taken on my neck (ok, so a lot of my dreams have been related to Gordon—typical, I suppose:-)). Last night’s was unusual by qualification of something other than simply being bizarre.
The dream took place at my graduation from Gordon (which is called commencement, and which isn’t for another year for me) and involved many people I’ve come to consider intrinsic to my Gordon experience, including classmates, friends that have since graduated, my parents, and Naomi, the wife of my priest. Naomi is particularly important to this dream, as she was the commencement speaker. Sitting in fold-down chairs on the campus quad (where graduations in nice weather take place), those in attendance faced towards the Jenks library and listened to Naomi give a message of encouragement to the graduating seniors. It was a wonderfully sunny day, and Naomi walked in front of us, doling out the typical words of congratulations, and then she stopped talking. Very slowly she bent down by one of the flowerbeds that beautifully decorate the sidewalk in front of the library, and picked a lavender flower which looked something like a cross between a bluebell and a daffodil. Turning back to us she said (and I will try to recall this as verbatim as I can, so please bear with me):
“I’ve often wondered at why God chose to create me as a human. In those moments when I feel acutely aware of Him, by whatever divine gift he deigns appropriate, I long to be an angel, privileged enough to spend day in and day out in God’s presence, and not on this fallen and suffering earth. Instead of seeing God face to face as I’ve longed for my whole life, I’m here, in this world of sin and pain and broken things, and I wish I could see and be seen by God.
“Then I am made to remember that this particular flower exists. It’s called a lute, and when the wind blows through a patch of them they make a musical sound much like bells, and it is beautiful music. I listen, and I know a bit of why I am here and not with the Lord. I am too enthralled by the lutes of this world. I am stunned and awakened by the alarms of this broken earth, and until I can learn to listen to those from the next I am not ready for that place. So God has kept me here to learn to listen, and when I am ready he will draw me near, but until then, the lutes of this world are holding me back from hearing his voice, and his alone. I am not yet ready.”
I looked it up as soon as I woke up: lutes, at least as flowers, don’t exist, I’m afraid. I don’t know why I had this particular dream, or what I’m to do with it (or what you, dear readers, are supposed to do with it), but in talking with soon-to-be-graduates who are struggling with the “five year plan” and the strange tension that is surrendering plans to God while remaining actively involved in the expression of academic ability and passion, I’ve been incredibly aware of the promise of God’s peace, and the great joy that is listening for his voice, and listening hard, and searching for echoes of Heaven even here, even now. I’ll stop soon to avoid preaching, but as we search beyond the shadows and haze of this world, I pray that the hope of knowing God may one day be realized fully, and that we all may be woken by the lutes and alarms of Heaven, and open ourselves up to being made ready by him.
(Having given up YouTube and Hulu for Lent, I find myself with more time and thoughts than usual, so while I acknowledge the rambling nature of this post, I make no apologies. Perhaps someone will find it challenging and encouraging.)
Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, a day that (amidst an already poignant Lenten season), inevitably brings with it self-reflection and a challenge to the narcissism and egoism to which I let myself fall subject most, if not all, of the time. When approached thoughtfully, receiving ashes and being told to remember that “you are dust, and to dust you will return” does little for one’s self-confidence, as I already suffer from my fair share of self-inflicted insignificance. Case in point: there's not much interesting literature or art that includes the name "Nicole," and I admit that I'm petty and shallow enough to resent that. There are the classic names, enduring and prominently featured in all the great works and stories of recent Western history, but "Nicole" has somewhat less of an interesting repertoire. Don’t we all cry out for a place in life's grand context? My plain name seems to serve as a crutch for such thinking.
How does this piece of dust respond? My dear friend Madeleine L’Engle would say it has something to do with being named, that I never was meant to be significant in and of myself, that it is only in the eyes of God that I was ever supposed to mean something. Intrinsic to my place within Creation is a unique name, and though I question and fight, it is this simple fact that informs my being. She describes the power of naming so perfectly in “A Wind in the Door” when she says “I name you. I fill you with Naming. Be! Be, butterfly and behemoth, be galaxy and grasshopper, star and sparrow. You matter, you are. Be! Sing with us, dance with us, rejoice with us, for the glory of creation, seagulls and seraphim, angle worms and angel host, chrysanthemum and cherubim. Be! Sing for the glory of the living and the loving the flaming of creation. Sing with us. Dance with us. Be with us. Be!”
C.S. Lewis closes “The Last Battle,” the final chronicle of Narnia, with a journey into a new and restored Narnia, and once again we hear of a voice, a voice more powerful, frightening and exciting than any other: a Namer. Blown in the winds of sin to a new world without such failings, the story’s travelers find themselves in a place eerily similar to the Narnia they’ve just left, the Narnia to which they were told they could never return. Uncle Digory, witness to Narnia’s birth, reflects that “…when Aslan said you could never go back to Narnia, he meant the Narnia you were thinking of. But that was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia which has always been here and always will be here…and of course it is different; as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream.”
And so the practice of receiving ashes becomes a reminder that this world is but a shadow, a promise of that to which I will return to what is real and what is holy. Called but for a moment out of sinful winds, God has given me a name, a gift of grace even on the long road to the Crucifixion, and if I've been named, then the appropriate response is one of joy, of love, of being, of great expectation and great anticipation. So I take cues from the stars, and rejoice in being named by my great God: I, Nicole, named and grateful, sing for the glory of the living and the loving, the flaming of creation. Though I am but a shadow and dust at best, glorious Easter is ever in view, and my head is caught between hanging low in deserved shame and glancing upwards in joyful hope. So further up and further in I journey, invited and called, this named piece of dust ever moving toward something real. Peace this Lenten season.
Sunday my roommate Anna, our friend Anya and I drove into Boston (oh, I LOVE that city!!) to attend Park Street Church and just enjoy the sidewalks and bustling city feel. (A word to the hopeful city driver: the parallel-parking skill must be refined before driving through Boston is attempted. Fortunately that was a talent I acquired early in my driving career:-).) Boston, with its beautiful brownstone buildings and ornate lamposts makes for the perfect artists' destination, and though I am not particularly gifted in the visual arts, there is so much to take in, and walking through its streets is invigorating, especially when flanked by joyful friends all eager to engage in the city's subtleties. After a wonderful time of worship we found our way to a burrito place called “Boloco” which was AMAZING and has 100% corn-product soda cups. Seriously, the cups are entirely compostable. It’s a wonderful testament to stewardship. Sunday also happened to be Valentine’s Day, and regardless of one's view of the holiday, be it overly-commercialized or a symbolic celebration of everlasting love, it colors the way we look at those around us, at least for the day, and for me life never fails to seem more joyful when everything around shouts of love, one way or another. Elderly couples holding hands while skating on Frog Pond, younger couples pushing strollers through the park and children and tourists eagerly taking pictures of themselves at every supposed "landmark" all stood testament to the opportunity to remind each other of their love and hope for more years of the same.
Returning to Gordon happy and full of my delicious Caesar chicken burrito, I was greeted by around 200 post-its decorating my bedroom walls, some with Bible verses on them, otherw with inspiring or just plain silly quotes. Not all are related to love, but all were posted in love by the girls on my floor, and I’ve decided to keep them up for as long as the sticky tack allows. Perhaps no flowers awaited me, but there is love all around—in a conversation with my parents, in a day spent with dear friends, and in a floor that left me a lifetime of encouraging notes. As with many things these days, my opinions on Valentine's Day are not yet fully fleshed out, but I do know what I wrote on the valentines I gave out this year: I will declare that your love stands firm forever, that you established your faithfulness in heaven itself. (Psalm 89:2)
And yes-that is a leopard-print Snuggie on my bed. :-)