On Blogging Again and Opening New (Classroom) Doors

I could sit around all afternoon and explain in great detail all the posts I wrote in my head between last January and right now. Life hasn’t exactly been boring, and I’ve had plenty to say. I just haven’t said it.

I could have written about the heavy days following the almost-breakup I was writing about in January… but that seemed hypocritical in view of the relatively positive note I’d last ended on. Also, I doubt it would have made very good reading.

I could have written about the really cool Tom Bombadil painting I did (after all, isn’t that one of the reasons I have this blog? To write about my art?) But the time came and passed.

I could have written about my close friend’s struggle with mental and physical illness this summer, but that was not my story to tell. Besides, I didn’t want to embarrass her.

I could have written about my reactions to the whole gay-marriage debate, but I’d grown far too tired of everyone yelling at each other and no one thinking straight (I know, I know, horrible pun) to subject myself to that same scrutiny (cowardly, I know). Also, by the time my thoughts on the matter had begun to gel into something resembling coherence, everyone seemed to have moved on to Cecil the Lion.

I could have written about writing, but, after all, isn’t it more time-effective to just go ahead and write the novel instead of writing about writing? (Besides, my summer job consumed so much of my time, I barely wrote. Why write about writing when you’re frustrated about not being able to write much in the first place? Talk about counterproductive!)

The time for excuses is past, though. A new school year is upon me, a new convention season is coming up, more people are going to be taking my business cards and looking up this hapless blog… so I’d better post something worth reading, sooner rather than later.

And what I’m going to post is, surprisingly, that I’m thankful to be still here, still posting. I’m thankful for the bad times and the good times I’ve had since January. Because even though there’s been an awful lot of awfulness this year, all of that awfulness has, I think, had its good sides. It’s refining me into a person who is better able to face life fearlessly and love others even when things seem bleak. It’s teaching me to take action, to cut out things that aren’t really worth my time and energy so I can focus on the things and people who really do matter so much to me.

And also, all of this has somehow inexplicably made me very thankful to be starting a new school year. I feel at home in my classroom, almost safe, settled. I love having students come to me, watching their faces light up as we talk about things that I love. I love seeing them learn. It is a beautiful thing.

It’s also, I might add, a particularly exciting school year. After years of such low numbers that most other schools would have given up, my little Christian high school has expanded… we’ve grown from the six students we started last year with to twenty students (!) from 6th through 12th grade. For the first time, I’m teaching middle school. For the first time, I’m teaching enough classes to merit having my own classroom (!!) which I spent way too much decorating. There was a lot of energy and excitement leading up to this past week, the first week of school.

And then the students came in the door.

And, after a week of organized chaos, the rhythm of a new school year has begun to settle–and it isĀ good.

With this rhythm, I’ve even had time to work on my story. And, later today, I fully intend to get a new art project started. I’ve got big plans to do an Eowyn piece before GeekGirlCon next month. Maybe, if the first one goes well, I’ll even do a set.

I guess there’s a reason we have seasons. There’s a sense of refreshment as an old season closes and a new season starts, as a summer ends and a new school year begins.

It’s just enough refreshment to kick me into blogging again. Maybe I can keep it up for a while this time.

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Some Days

Some days you don’t want to go to bed because it means waking up the next morning. At that point, you know that the next day is going to be SOME day.

That was last night.

Then today actually started. I don’t need to go into all the details, but it included a fairly intense conversation with a parent before first period was even over. An hour into the school day, and I felt like throwing up and really just wanted to crawl into a dark hole and hide. I felt like I was splitting at the seams, and if you poked me too hard, all the stuffing would come out.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take much. During lunch period, in front of my high schoolers, a fellow teacher and dear friend asked a harmless question that sent me into defensive mode. The stuffing was leaking, and there was nothing I could do about it. There was tension. There were tears. I left the room.

Not only had I hurt her, but my poor high schoolers, who certainly don’t need any more drama and emotion in their lives, were treated to tension between two trusted teachers. Not okay. Not in any way okay. And it was all my fault– unquestionably my fault. I frantically scooped up the stuffing, grabbed a needle and thread, and got to work. Apologizing to my friend in front of the kids was the best way to patch up the situation, but it was, after all, a patch where something had been irreparably torn that should never have been, and I left school today feeling like the biggest waste of oxygen on the planet.

This happens, you see. I make mistakes. Even worse, I do things I know are wrong. And I keep doing them. Then I realize I’ve been doing something wrong, and I sit back and imagine God’s perspective. But, after all, I am human, and this projected dialogue with God is a dialogue with my humanized imagination of God. It usually goes something like this:

Erika: “So I did it again. I know it was wrong, I knew it was wrong when I was doing it, and I did it again.”

God: “All right. I love you anyway, but hey, girl, I want to USE you. I want you to be an important part of my story here, and you’ve got to get your act together if you want that. You want that, don’t you?”

Erika: “Of course I do!!!”

God: “All right, then. Get your act together!”

But God, as we’re clearly told, does not think the way man thinks and doesn’t see the way man sees. In fact, sometimes (usually, I find) His workings are so completely and totally opposite anything we would plan out that there is no way they cannot be “other,” that they cannot be divine in origin. I see this in salvation; no human who really takes sin and evil seriously would invent a system in which their sin gets completely paid by someone else. It’s just irresponsible; we want to feel the pain, we want to feel like we’re atoning for things. We want to earn our way, to do penance.

But oh no. God had another plan up His sleeve, one so “other” that it can’t help but be divine.

It’s easy to see it in salvation. It’s not so easy to see it in the nitty gritty stuff in life.

For example, I’ve been noticing a very odd, very “other” trend. Every time I do one of these things, every time I do something I know is wrong and then feel terribly sorry for it and beg for forgiveness, what I would expect is a setback. I would expect a probation period, a time during which God wants me to come closer to Him and learn some obedience before he gives me a new assignment in his Story. A time to sit in the corner and think about what I’ve done.

But oh no.

Instead, I usually find that within twenty-four hours, I have been thrown an assignment of more-or-less epic spiritual proportions (usually involving a person in need) and have experienced victory in it.

This happens way too often for it to be a coincidence.

Back to tonight.

I think it’s safe to say that today was one of my biggest failures (out of many) that I’ve had in quite some time. I really, really blew it in front of a lot of people who mattered to me and who I’m something of an example to. If there was ever a time for me to get pulled out of the game for a while, thrown into the penalty box to ponder my ways, this would be the time.

Instead, four hours after leaving school in tears, I found myself on the back stairway of my church beside a fourth grade girl as she prayed the fourth-grade version of “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner” and became, as she called it, “God’s kid.”

You see, I’m beginning to understand something absolutely mind-blowing. God doesn’t always respond to my mistakes by telling me to sit in the corner and think about what I’ve done. He knows– he knows very well– that I want to be a meaningful part of the Story. He also knows that I’m weak and have issues. So, instead of dangling a “someday” in front of me and telling me to get my act together, the conversation runs something like this:

Erika: “God, I blew it again. I really messed up. I did it even though I knew it was wrong. I’m going to go put myself in the corner and think about what I’ve done.”

God: “No! No! Get back in the game! I have something I want you to do RIGHT NOW!”

Erika: “But I’m not your person. Didn’t you hear? I knew it was wrong and I did it anyway.” (looks up from the corner) “Oh! Look! Something needs to be done!”

(Goes and does it)

Erika: (comes back with a grin) “That was so cool!” (remembers earlier failure, head droops) “Wait, I messed up. Why did you use me? I need to sit in the corner and think about what I’ve done!”

God: (just grins)

Erika: “WAIT. Hey, that’s not fair. You didn’t play by the rules. You’re supposed to wait until I get my act together before you use me, right? Right?”

God: (just grins)

Erika: “Are you trying to tell me that the whole sit-in-the-corner thing was my idea?”

God: “Maybe. Hey, if I wait till you get your act together, you’re not going to get anything done. That’s too discouraging. So I’ve figured out something better. How about you get back in the action and actually DO some of the cool stuff in my power, and remember how much you like it.”

Erika: (grudgingly) “That DOES sound a whole lot more motivating.”

God: “How about I help you get your act together, instead of you doing it on your own, and we do it WHILE we’re doing the cool stuff?”

Erika: (sigh of relief) “Now THAT sounds like something that could actually happen.”

Of course this is all coming out of my imagination. I’m not even trying to say that God actually says these words to me. But it is actually how He’s been working. No dangling-carrots. No penalty boxes. Just… grace. Grace, which is frighteningly, gorgeously “other.”

And that’s more than enough to get me through some days.

Turkey, with a Side of Perspective

Thanksgiving was in full swing upstairs, but I had slipped downstairs for a moment to breathe. My cat Oliver, who had come to my parents’ with me for the weekend, rubbed up against me and started purring. I picked him up and squeezed him, as if squeezing my silent, furry friend could ease the pain inside me.

I felt unutterably sad about the tension between my dad and me. I felt sad that he had said nothing about the Thanksgiving card I had left on his desk. I so desperately want a good relationship with my parents, but I want that relationship to be one that allows us to talk as adults, back and forth. I want to be able to be honest about what I think without being condemned, and so far I have seen no progress in that direction. And here, at my family’s, we were celebrating thankfulness, and I could only seem to think about how my recent efforts at openness with my dad had failed or been misinterpreted or ignored. Not that I had always handle everything well– I fail as much as anyone– but I had been trying harder than usual, it hadn’t been working, and it hurt.

But as I hugged Oliver, suddenly I remembered that this was not the first Thanksgiving when I had excused myself momentarily from the family gathering because the atmosphere of happy thankfulness had become oppressive. And when I remembered the circumstances, I smiled in spite of myself.

I had probably been about fifteen or sixteen, and we were at my grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving– you know, the long table and the cousins and the whole nine yards. It was all very happy and wholesome, and we had just gone through that yearly rite-of-passage where we all went around the table and said what we were thankful for.

I don’t remember what I said– something trite and expected, probably– but I do vividly remember excusing myself shortly thereafter and going into one of the bedrooms and throwing myself headlong on the bed, the quilt pressing up against my cheeks as I ground my body into the mattress in silent agony over the charade I’d just been through and the emptiness I saw in my own soul.

You see, I was in the middle of one of the darkest chapters of my short life, although I was doing a mighty fine job of hiding it from everybody around me. As a young person who’d grown up in the Christian church and been raised by very Christian parents in a very Christian way, I had been wondering for the last several years whether or not any of it was real. And I was terrified that it might not be, and yet afraid of the condemnation that would come should I ask the questions that were tearing me up.

Hence the inner agony. My life might not have any point to it, there might not even be a God or any hope for forgiveness or purpose, and I’d just stuffed my face with turkey and pretended to thank Him for it. I was desperate for answers and sick of the charade, and the agony of all of it was shredding me inside.

Over the next several years, my own inquiries and the guidance of several wise adults pointed me toward satisfying answers to my questions. My parents’ faith has now become my own. I believe with all of my heart in God and His plan, even if I will never have all the answers to why the things happen in life that happen. God held onto me. I was His, I am His now, and I will be His for eternity.

But I still remember that day with the vividness of a photograph, of a frozen moment in time. I remember it as one saves a relic. It’s a reminder of how lost I was then, and how found I am now.

This was what I thought of, there in the basement, as I hugged Oliver and took cool breaths of air in the solitude of the basement. And yes, I smiled at the memory.

It was the comparison of the two that made me smile. Because, what is a conflict with my dad in view of the destiny of my soul? The one question, the important question, was answered. And the answers I found are the answers to everything else, to every other desolate moment I might have.

I don’t know how things will get worked out with my dad. I hope for peace, for understanding, for a trust-based adult relationship, but I may not find what I seek. There’s bound to be a lot of unpleasantness ahead. But I can make it through that unpleasantness, because, well, I know Who’s holding onto me. I know that He exists. I know that He has a purpose for everything, and I know He is my Savior.

Not that it eases the pain. Just last night– after this epiphany, mind you– I was crying in a corner of the couch after nearly everyone was in bed, texting a friend about all the ugliness I felt. But that’s life sometimes. It stinks, and no amount of pious-sounding words will fix how much it stinks and hurts.

But there is hope. And there is purpose. As the Sunday-school song says, “this I know,” beyond shaking.

Nothing like a little perspective to put you fully into the spirit for Thanksgiving. Carefully I set Oliver down and headed back upstairs into the warmth of the kitchen and the laughter of my family.

Like Cold Water

I didn’t realize just how intensely the events of last week (narrated earlier) had affected me until Friday night, when I went over to my friend Nicole’s house to chat and watch a movie. During a time we’d have normally been relaxing and chatting, she was relaxing and chatting, and I was answering in monosyllables. I felt like I could hardly move; I stared straight ahead; and, most telling of all, I’d drawn my legs up instead of stretching out on the recliner.

That moment when I feel safest when I’m as compact as I can make my nearly 6’frame– that moment, my friends, is a dangerous moment. Because, if you poke me with a stick, there is no telling whether I will run screaming from the room, run screaming at you, or just stare blankly at you and the stick as if I’ve never seen such a thing before.

What proceeded, though, over the next few days, was nothing short of astounding.

It’s hard to say at what point it started. But somewhere back toward the middle of that week, I kept getting texts. And messages. And little comments from people who I didn’t think even noticed that all was not all right. One of my students texted me a link to a song that spoke directly to where I was at. I got to spend a portion of Saturday with a dear friend who not only gave me hugs but also washed the dinner dishes for me and shared a Doctor Who episode that specifically addressed finding hope at the point where there seemed to be none (the 50th anniversary special, in case anyone was wondering). I mean, there were lines in that episode that seemed eerily written for me. A favorite Facebook page posted a meme with one of my favorite quotes from Lord of the Rings: that moment when Aragorn looks in hopeless eyes at Helm’s Deep and reminds the fighters, “There is always hope.” Friends– friends whom I usually looked after, not the other way around– were checking in with me because they were worried about me.

I didn’t understand it. On one hand, I was downright uncomfortable with all the attention. On the other hand, I was beginning to have no delusions about my own weakness and the fact that these people were actually helping.

But it all reached a head on Sunday.

I was on my way to church, and I got a text message. I checked it, and it was my mentor from student teaching last year– a woman I literally have not seen in months. “You are especially in our prayers this morning,” it read. WHAT. This was going beyond “I have a problem that people must be able to see.” This was getting downright weird.

But things didn’t get better. They got worse. Anyone who’s dealt with something similar will understand what I mean when I say that sometimes, when I am low like this, waves of inner blackness will come, for no explainable reason, and fighting them off is exhausting if not impossible. I don’t think I could tell you much about the church service, honestly, because it was mostly engulfed in one such wave. I made it home, though, things a little abated although not necessarily better.

Shortly thereafter, my phone rang. It was one of my best friends, whom I was more or less expecting. We talk most Sunday afternoons. Our conversations are usually a glorious mix of elaborate story crafting, sci-fi-tinged theological wonderings, rants about the world’s stupidity, and the occasional Hannibal joke.

I hate it when, instead, they turn into me sobbing my heart out into my friend’s ear. Never mind that she’s done that a few times, too. It just feels wrong, coming from me. It’s not who I want to be. It’s not who I’m supposed to be.

But there we were. And then something happened that I very much hope I will never forget. I don’t see how I ever could, anyway.

“You know, Erika,” she said. “I was thinking about you this week, and about all the stuff that’s been happening the last year or so. I was thinking about it, and I actually wrote some stuff about it.” She sounded embarrassed. “I wrote a poem, actually. And I won’t read it to you. I won’t read it to anyone, but let me see if I can just tell you the gist of what I was thinking. You’re going to make it. It will all be okay.”

“Well, of course I will,” I said. “If we look to eternity, we’ve all got a happy ending.”

“I had that one thrown in my face a few too many times to find it comforting. But you can think it if it helps; it’s true. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about you, in this life, in this situation. It will be okay.”

Before I go any further, one fact requires explanation. My friend just doesn’t say this sort of thing. Any cynicism I may display, I learned from her. She is one of the most cynical, pessimistic people I know–and what makes her pessimism stick in one’s mind is that it’s based on cold, hard, indisputable facts. She’s had more than the usual human share of grief and maltreatment, herself. Her outlook on life and humanity is bleak but justifiably so. She is, in fact, so consistently right about impending disaster that I have taken to just taking her at her word, no questions asked.

This, then, was the person who 1) wrote a poem about MY situation and 2) was now telling me that things were going to work out with the school. It was almost too much for me to process.

“Why do you say that?” I finally managed, quietly.

“Because I know you,” she said. “Because of who you are.”

I wanted to argue, to protest, to demand an explanation. But really, I knew what she was saying. It didn’t require an explanation. I just didn’t believe it. It seemed like such a strange reason to hope, a reason grounded in the one thing I really had no confidence whatsoever in, in the thing I felt was crumbling. Because of who I was?

“I watched a movie last week that you should watch,” she was continuing. “A Western. Tombstone. The best part of the movie was Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday character. I’ll send it to you. You should see it. He reminds me of you.”

The movie arrived at the speed of a digital document, and I watched it almost as soon as it arrived. And without spoiling a rather excellent piece of filmmaking for those who haven’t seen it, Doc Holliday was easily the coolest character in the whole story. He’s a drunkard and a gambler, but he’s got this sense of humor that stuns his enemies, and, even better, he’s casually deadly with a gun and has no objections to shooting up anyone or anything that gets in his way. All the while, might I add, he is suffering from a worsening lung disease.

I was enjoying his character immensely, but having some difficulty understanding my friend’s comparison until a scene where another character demands, incredulously, to know why he just keeps fighting. “Because Wyatt Earp is my friend!” he declares.

Nice one. I get it now, I thought.

But it didn’t end there. No spoilers, but that character just kept on going. He kept on fighting. It was ridiculous. It was beautiful. And by the time the movie was over, I was so overwhelmed at being compared to this character that I felt the need to call my friend and just sort it out.

At this point, I should probably mention that my student decided to come back to the school. The initial source of panic, the tipping point, was unexpectedly resolved Sunday night. I got a text from her simply saying that she would be back in school on Monday.

I could almost taste my relief. And I recalled my post about the scarcity of miracles, and I smiled. Take that, odds. Maybe you are in my favor.

I would love to say that life swung upward permanently. But the fact is that by the time I actually got to talk to my friend again about the movie, I had had another very difficult day, and what I had hoped would be an enjoyable discussion of the movie turned into another impassioned round of tears. It took an Evanescence sing-along and a long Facebook chat with another friend before I was at peace enough to sleep that night. No, I would not say that things have gotten easier, even though that particular hurdle has been crossed.

But I know one thing. I know that, no matter how close to exploding or getting engulfed I might feel, it will work out. My pessimistic friend told me so. And she is always right.

The moral of the story: A pessimist wields a power of comfort that an optimist can’t even touch. Optimists, at their best, are relying on an unquenchable scaly hope. An honest pessimist, on the other hand, cannot help but say what they see. And if they see hope, hope there must really be indeed.

So, keep that in mind, pessimists. Your day may come to do what no optimist can. Because, like cold water in a dry and weary land is optimism from a pessimist.

Hope is the Thing With Scales

“Hope is the thing with feathers,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “That perches in the soul– and sings the music without words– and never stops– at all–”

I think mine doesn’t have feathers. I think it has scales. Scales made out of the same stuff they use to make blast shields in sci-fi movies.

Because like those stupid bugs that you can grind into the carpet and they still somehow live, I cannot seem to stop hoping that the worst of things will work out. Even if, for a day, I am convinced that there is no point and things are finally hopeless, the slightest touch, the slightest breath of promise, however far-fetched and foolish it might seem, revives my hope, and up it springs, tormenting me once again.

Yes, I say tormenting. And I know I’m being melodramatic, but I’m allowed to be. I’ve had a hideous week, and I can’t seem to give up hope.

That sounds like a wonderful thing, and, deep down, I suppose it is. But sometimes it would just be such a relief to actually be able to throw one’s hands up over a situation and walk away, heart at peace because there actually, truly is no hope. But no. Like one of those tough-shelled bugs, my hope only appears to die. Then it reappears to throw me back into the game.

And I’m not talking a gentleman’s game. More like the Hunger Games.

Allow me to provide a little background before I once again continue philosophizing. I teach at a minuscule Christian school. We had enough students–and just enough students– to run a full program this year. After putting more effort than I really had to give into promotional work last year, we still ended up with fewer students than we had last year. But we still had enough to run a program. Then, last week, one of our full-time students pulled out for “personal reasons.” And it was a student I’d personally connected with and spent a lot of love and tears on.

I cried so much Tuesday that my eyelids were puffy for two straight days. I do not exaggerate.

Tuesday I was convinced that the school could not survive. I finally began to consider the possibility that the promotional efforts had been in vain and maybe I should start looking for another job next school year. Maybe it was time to just give up. After all, what else could I do? I’d already tried.

But of course, the next day, our administrator and I tossed the situation back and forth, and he encouraged me to keep up the promotional work. And that night, I chatted with the student, who admitted that she might want to return at some point.

So, you see, hope is alive and well.

And it’s so very annoying.

Because, you see, there really is no good reason for it. My student could just as well decide to stay out of our school. I might not have any more luck getting our information out to churches that have already slammed the door on me once or twice. And if we don’t get any more students this year, who knows where my last couple of paychecks are going to come from? Hope is ridiculous.

But without it, nothing impossible would ever be attempted. And it’s true that every now and then, once in a blue moon, one chance in a thousand, something impossible actually does happen. Hope lives because miracles do sometimes happen. And on the off chance that this school will be one of them, I will act on my hope.

Pain and disappointment, here we come. All because that stupid scaly thing in my soul won’t die.