A Second Finding

I really want to talk about autumn, but I’m afraid I can’t do this season justice. Neither can I ignore it. It won’t let me. You see, I count my years, not in the cold winter of January, but with the advent of September and October. I’m sure it’s a by-product of being a teacher. The start of each school year sings with new beginnings. The unscheduled haze of summer fades as new rhythms and routines curl slowly into concrete form until I can trace their patterns with my eyes closed tight. Fall means comfort and reliability even as it means a chill breeze bringing change in its most pleasing form.


I’ve been taking a long look at the trees each morning as I walk into school. I’m not sure what species they are, but these trees have mastered the art of transitioning gracefully. The sun hasn’t quite peeked over the branches yet, so the golds and oranges are softened by a mist which hugs the soccer field, and geese fly overhead as black silhouettes against a rose-gold sky. I slow my steps so my caffeine-deprived brain has time to realize that this warm rainbow of color is a good reward for being awake at this ungodly hour.


Today I teach 7th grade. This class is the pile of leaves swept gaily into small flurries by an October breeze. The chaos of it all is heartwarming in a way I’ll never fully understand. These students come in every day spilling over with rambunctious curiosity, bearing stories of Latin words found adorning pizza boxes and making appearances in episodes of Spongebob Squarepants. One sweet boy has no qualms about loudly proclaiming  his love of prepositions, and every day he tells everyone how he decided to highlight every prepositional phrase in his favorite novel. Their enthusiasm fills me with joy, and I realize how much I love them in all their quirky weirdness.


Monitoring lunchtime is a gift in its own way. Along with the noise of 80 students attempting to talk and eat in the same breath, it brings conversations and inside jokes with two wonderful women who have years of teaching wisdom to share. We end mealtime with a break outdoors to soak in the late morning light. I make sure no one suffers a major injury playing soccer and touch football, and standing on the edge of the soccer field I see the trees from this morning shining in even brighter golden glory.


Driving home is at its most enjoyable in October. The classic rock and country music of summer have been moved to the side as I work through a list of wonderfully hipster indie music. My relief at the close of another workday is amplified by the afternoon sun beating upon the rusty leaves overhead. The world slows down and the passing foliage falls into rhythm with the quiet music playing in my car. It’s now that I feel all the beauty of autumn insisting upon words from me. But even my best ideas seem cheesy and cliche. I know I’m not the first to realize how beautiful the dying world can be. I remember the poem I posted near my desk at school, the one that talks about the wonder of a world always reminding us to rediscover her beauty. I remember my favorite lines at the end. I repeat them to myself, and I open my window to feel the chill breeze.

Your hands hold roses always in a way that says
They are not only yours; the beautiful changes
In such kind ways,
Wishing ever to sunder
Things and things’ selves for a second finding, to lose
For a moment all that it touches back to wonder.

Failing

I made peach jam for the first time ever this week.

Part of the above statement is a lie.

I think I was in good shape with the project until I actually started reading the recipe that came with the box of pectin. My mother assured me this was what she relied upon. Initially, it seemed fine. 4 cups of peaches. Check. 1/4 cup of lemon juice. Check. 1 package of pectin. Check. 1 billion cups of sugar. Hold up.

I had this idea that peach jam would be primarily peaches, not sugar. I’m also foolishly committed to the idea that spooning jam onto toast is essentially the same as slapping a couple slices of fruit on top. In other words, healthy. So I stared at the sugar content and thought maybe I should lower the amount so I could feel better about myself when I cracked open a jar. Then I looked at the instructions: “Do not reduce the sugar content. Use the exact amount of sugar recommended for the recipe. INEXACT SUGAR MEASUREMENT WILL RESULT IN SET FAILURE.”

I’m not even making up the all caps.

Surely, such a bold warning should make any sane person think twice before they fooled with the sugar. But did I heed the loud and clear and capitalized voice of reason from the pectin company? No. But you see, what happened was I measured all the sugar into my pot and I basically couldn’t fit any peaches in there, because it was full of sugar. So you see I just scooped out a couple cups of sugar to make room for the fruit.

It wasn’t a normal week this week. Maybe that’s why  I thought I could mess with the sugar. This was the second week of school. I’d been on school property from 6:45am till 5:45pm. Whether or not I was really “at work” during that time is not something I’m going to comment on (I mean, truthfully, that last hour was spent being eaten by mosquitoes while watching the varsity boys soccer game. It was still a long day, okay?). Anyway, I scooped some sugar out of the pot, dumped the peaches in, and didn’t look back.

The jam started boiling and I remembered that the directions said “boil for one minute EXACTLY.”  I decided it was time to do as I was told, so I set a timer for one minute. It beeped. Then I decided that one minute wasn’t long enough, so I tossed the directions into the recycling bin and let the peach goop boil for a few more minutes.

I ladled my “jam” into jars and prayed that my stubborn willfulness wouldn’t cause any major consequences.

Next morning. Worst fears realized: SET FAILURE.

Luckily peach soup still tastes pretty darn good.

I’m writing this down, but I don’t think I have a point. Maybe it’s to show I’m less of a conformist than I think.  Or maybe there’s something in the fact that I dared the SET FAILURE to happen because it would be a better story if I ended up with soup instead of jam.

I guess I could say something cheesy about God dealing with our set failures when we willingly disregard his directions. Because that jam, if you want to call it jam (actually I’m calling it preserves, which sounds authentically less jelled for some reason), still tastes good (actually it mostly tastes like sugar, so I’m sticking to my guns on the less sugar decision). Regardless, the peach “preserves” weren’t a total disaster. Maybe there’s truth in that, somewhere.

In all honesty though, I wrote this because I laughed when I read SET FAILURE in all caps, and I wanted you to laugh with me. The end.

Unchanging

I think it’s time to write about Go Set a Watchman. Not because I’m happy with the book. Maybe I need to write about it because I’m not. Happy, that is. I’m not happy because Scout is going by Jean Louise in this book, and she is wholly herself and wholly me as well, mostly in the way she reacts poorly to change. I hate having to read about my faults — though it is nice to feel I am not the only one who would prefer the world to remain static on occasion.

I liked it best at Jean Louise’s flashback to her childhood, a moment remotely similar to reading To Kill a Mockingbird. I think it was this moment which led to the novel I know and love so dearly. It’s one flash of familiarity, right before Atticus is shown to be anything but the man I looked up to for years (I know, he’s fictional. Gregory Peck is not. And Gregory Peck is Atticus, okay?).

I should have known what was coming. I heard rumors about Atticus before I even held the book in my hands at Barnes and Noble. It was those rumors which I ignored so I could buy the book. I ignored them because I didn’t want to be afraid. I didn’t want a story in a book to be more than I was willing to face. So I forced myself to shove the fear down, far enough that I could reach my credit card.

Anyway, I reached this beautiful flashback moment with Scout and Jem and Dill and it felt like home. And it made me afraid again. Like Jean Louise, I’d rather keep things the way I remember them. I know it’s unrealistic, but I’d prefer to be the only dynamic element in my life, and I think Jean Louise would too. I’m on her side all the way through the book; I’ll take the days when Boo lived down the street and it was hot, hot summer with the ladies and the talcum powder and Dill popping up next door.

At this point, I wrote to a friend of mine, complaining about the impending doom I could sense approaching. He told me maybe change in Atticus’ character would be for the best, that maybe flaws would make him more relatable. I was irritated, and replied to him saying I didn’t want Atticus to crouch just so I could see eye-to-eye with him. I told him I’d rather find myself rising on tiptoes to get a better look, because I didn’t see how things could continue if Atticus wasn’t the good and wonderful man I believed in. Okay, maybe I didn’t say it in those exact words. I think I erased the melodrama from that particular e-mail.

I’m not saying Go Set a Watchman was the most hideous prose I’ve ever read. I’m also not saying you should buy it immediately and read it. But I am saying it was a story I needed to read. I’m not happy about it, but there it is. I’m always afraid to face change when it stares me in the face. Big or small, doesn’t matter. Better the devil you know than the one you don’t, that’s what I say. This book never stood a chance at making me happy. What I wanted wasn’t a new story, but continuation of the story I loved, an immersion into time and place without any character or plot development. I wouldn’t have been afraid of that. But it wouldn’t have been a story. At least, not one worth reading.

After I finished the book I wrote to my friend again. I told him I was emotionally traumatized and that I wanted everything to stay the same, always. He kindly ignored my hysterics and got to the heart of the matter. He told me maybe change isn’t all bad: “It reminds us that we were made for permanence and eternity, and that we will not find that on this Earth…change forces us to define ourselves not by our surroundings and other people, which change constantly, but by something, or Someone, who doesn’t change.”

I hate it when he’s right.

Saying

Actions Speak
Smile said “we’re friends”
Mocking smirked and replied, “so you’ll love me no matter what.”
It was Hug who said “hello” in the first place
But he has to say “goodbye” as well.

I know you like my food because Eating told me so
And it was Reading who informed me of what we had in common
(Though Writing was more expressive on that point).

I think Buying Drinks said a lot more than he meant to.
Watching TV has this ditzy tone,
But she’s so quotable.

Fighting is the worst when she goes silent.
Better for her to speak up and get it over with.
Misunderstanding and Miscommunicating
Would do better to shut up more often.
But without them I suppose Forgiving would have much less to say,
And he has so much to teach us.

It was Listening who spoke peace into my life
And Responding who sung with hope and grace.

Being There is the quietest,
Or at least he seems that way,
Standing off in the corner.
But you know, he’s my favorite.
And trust me, once you get him going…

Seeking

Something pertaining to generosity
In this shade and in this breeze
Whisper ideas
Curling into thoughts
Small and soft like buds and blooms
Clinging to branches in spring.

I trace their outlines onto paper
Arranging a bouquet of the abstract
Into something I can grasp in my hands
While I look for a measure of beauty
By which beauty I mean truth.

Satisfied not in whole but in part–
I’ve never seen perfection in what nature granted me–
I hold out my flowers for you to view
Your approbation a coin in hand
I’d gladly exchange with my small bundle of posies.

Unassuming

“I’m beginning to recognize that real happiness isn’t something large and looming on the horizon ahead but something small, numerous and already here. The smile of someone you love. A decent breakfast. The warm sunset. Your little everyday joys all lined up in a row.” – Beau Taplin

I’ve been thinking about little joys ever since reading the above quote earlier this week. So today I decided to line my little joys up in a row:
– A visit to a bookstore
– The iced chai latte I bought only as an excuse to stop at a coffeehouse named “The Little Red Fox”
– Sitting in the shade in a comfortably worn, wooden chair
– The soundtrack to a movie I’ve never seen called Many Beautiful Things
– Emails from a friend
– Nighttime driving with the windows down

I’m finding the little joys offer a lot in the way of satisfaction.  Maybe because they are real and small enough that I can hold them in my hand and feel they’re really truly mine.

C.S. Lewis writes in the Screwtape Letters about the little joys. He calls them “real pleasures, ” things which carry “a sort of innocence and humility and self-forgetfulness about them,” which make one feel like “coming home.” He implies that these are the unassuming moments and activities which point us back to our Father, ground us in reality, and wake us up to living.

A friend of mine and I have been talking about discovering what feeds our souls: creating artwork; reading books; learning a new language. We’ve realized that we become more fully ourselves, more animated and refreshed and alive, when these are part of our daily rhythms and routines. And while each is a larger habit or a constant working in our lives, it’s the small moments stemming from them that make us feel, like Lewis said, as if we are coming home: trying a new painting technique; finally recognizing the tense of a Greek verb; underlining beautiful words in a good book. I think that’s why the little joys are important. I think the little joys are part of bigger joys too. I think the little joys are part of what feeds our souls.

So today I’m lining up my little joys, and I’m praying for the grace to see them tomorrow.

Asking

I would like gasping happiness like driving fast in summertime.

I would like steadiness through change, to be standing still even on sand.

I would like clarity for repentance.

I would like peace enough to rest and be unashamed of breathing.

I would like wisdom with assurance for when I know only this step and not the next ten.

I would like to feel love and grace even more than I know them.

 

“It takes no supernatural grace to ask for what one wants and I have asked You bountifully…help me to ask You, oh Lord, for what is good for me to have, for what I can have and do Your service by having.” – Flannery O’Connor

Picturing

I like where I am right now. I’m speaking very literally here. I like where I am sitting. It used to be a street, I think; now it’s essentially a giant patio. There are paving bricks instead of asphalt, which I think adds a charming flair to the feel of the thing. The most pleasant element is that there is enough seating in the form of chairs around little cafe tables and benches under awnings, hence my perching here to write.

Other things I like about this used-to-be-street:
– There is the right amount of people here.I’m uncrowded but not alone.
– Two of the restaurants are decidedly and pretentiously French, and the wine store is advertising for a La Vie en Rosé.
– There is a shop selling gelato, which is Italian and my favorite.
– It’s picturesque. One of my great desires in life is to be present in picturesque settings.

I couldn’t ask for anything more at this moment. A breeze is blowing through the street and is making my skirt billow (picturesquely). I should go. I’m starting to rethink my self-imposed obligations for the evening. I’d really like to stay here until the stars come out and the globes of the cafe lights glow above my head.

I’ve just finished eating my salad. I should really go. The man at the salad place gave me a discount for being pretty today. He didn’t say that of course. But I order the same salad every time, and never have I heard the term “harvest salad” applied to my concoction of an order “because it’ll be cheaper that way.” My hair does look good right now. And I have a skirt that billows in the wind.

I think it’s time to leave.

*1 hour later*

I didn’t go. I sidetracked myself into Barnes and Noble instead. I bought Harper Lee’s book that just came out. My angst over this decision is not fit for publication. Suffice it to say that I sat debating the purchase for a good half hour before I gave in and bought the thing.

Now I just need to find a picturesque bench so I can sit and read.

Adventuring

I’m in Georgetown sitting by the river right now. Georgetown is where you have the option to sit under a tree by the canal or in the sun on the edge of the Potomac. I like that. I chose the river today for the breeze and for the view.

I walked over the Key Bridge to get here. I’ve never done that before. It’s summer though, and summer is for new things and for walking. That’s why I’m here by the river wearing very comfortable shoes.

Georgetown gets me thinking in “if-thens”. Mostly the ifs are “if I had enough money”. These are the thens:

– Then I would buy something at this Anthropologie for full price.
– Then I would always eat in places like that fancy restaurant with the climbing ivy and the balcony.
– Then I would stay in this hotel and have my car parked by the valets in the nice suits.
– Then I would become a student at Georgetown University so I could sit in the library.
– Then I would wear my full-priced Anthropologie dress to a concert at the Kennedy Center.
– Then I would move into this row house by the canal and I wouldn’t care how terrible the parking is.
image

Today I wonder if I am a city girl. Today I wonder if this is where I’ll grow old. I wonder if someday I’ll establish myself in one of these buildings intentionally stooping lower than the Capitol.

I’ll walk to the metro soon enough. I should probably buy a bottle of water, on account of it being hot and humid because this city is built on a swamp. I’ll lose my way a little bit, because I am alone and easily sidetracked by streets with shady trees and old buildings. But I’ll find my way eventually.

Reassuring

I said goodbye to a dear friend this week. I said goodbye once already, but as my fantastic luck would have it, he came back and we had to repeat the process. I cried a lot less this time, which was helpful.

Saying goodbye was different this time than it was before. A few months ago, I was saying goodbye to a time and a place and a way of living. I was letting go of those trips to bookstores accompanied by a running stream of Lord of the Rings and Princess Bride quotes. I was reconciling myself to a little less poetry in my life. I had to figure out a new way to express the ideas that I was once able to say to him face-to-face. It was a lot to say goodbye to. So I cried the first time he left.

By the time he came back, I’d remembered how to do the bookstores and The Lord of the Rings and the poetry without him. And we’d talked while he was gone. Life had continued and I was in one piece.

Problem was, this time I had to actually say goodbye to him. That was when I got scared. Even clutching my security blanket of poems and e-mails and The Two Towers, I found myself irrationally and terribly afraid I was going to lose my friend once there was an ocean between us.

I don’t like feeling afraid, so I wrote this and sent it to him:

—————
Vous avez mon coeur
I told you yesterday that my worst tendency is to over-invest in people. It’s the worst because there aren’t so many people as you’d think who will invest back at you, so it ends up being this sort of diminishing return situation that I hear isn’t so good. Like buying a car and you feel really great about it at first but then the car gets old and all the money you spend to keep it running is going into some black hole, and you’d love to give up on the car but that means starting over and that means that all the money you’ve spent is officially and really gone and now you have nothing to drive.
Vous avez mon coeur
Maybe you’ll think it’s odd or strange or something not quite right that I keep repeating that phrase. Maybe I chose the wrong words. But maybe you’ll understand by the end. 
Vous avez mon coeur
I’m worried I’ll over-invest in you. But I told you that already, so this isn’t exactly revelatory information. Maybe the new part of this is my wishing you’d actually responded to that statement when I made it. Maybe the new part of this is that I still need reassurance sometimes. Because maybe the worst part of this is that the only lies I’m good at telling are the ones meant to tear myself down.
Vous avez mon coeur
Do you understand it yet?
Vous avez mon coeur
Maybe I should have put something in there about “friends” so there wasn’t confusion. But I don’t remember the French word for friend. I know the Elvish word for friend, and I know how that can be a password and an inside joke. But I don’t know the French word for friend, so I suppose you’ll have to add it yourself, if you want.
 —————

A bit dramatic, I know.  But I know the French for “my friend” now. So let’s forget the drama for a minute, and instead let’s just say that mon ami is a very patient and understanding individual. Let’s just say that I’ll miss him dreadfully, but that I’m not scared anymore.