In the first few weeks of school, I find myself swinging between this isn’t that bad and then suddenly falling into I’m not sure I can do this for an entire semester or an entire year. What I keep returning to is the knowledge that this year, perhaps more than ever, needs to be filled with intentional work-life balance and an abundance of good, life-giving things for me. It is always the desire and goal each year for those things to have a critical place and yet this year I think they need to be a desire turned into reality.
With everyone masked, I find myself trying to guess more and more what my students are thinking or how they are receiving the information presented. Not every student gives away their inner thoughts on their faces, but it certainly helps me know more about what is happening internally when I have an entire face to view and not simply a set of eyes.
I realize the same is true for them, too, when I re-watch videos of me teaching and I see how crucial the facial expressions were for the lesson. I don’t claim to have the most interesting face, friends, but the whole face is incredibly helpful when lecturing. Even though I was raised by a man who disciplined with his eyebrows, I cannot convey every emotion purely through raising or lowering my eyebrows. I attribute at least part of my excessive tiredness to this COVID-induced reality.
In March, before COVID became a full-blown pandemic, I ordered four icons from an Orthodox icon shop I’ve used in the past. They were able to ship two of the icons before needing to close their shop due to state restrictions and for the health of their employees. The other two would be shipped at a later date, as they were able to re-open and continue production of the icons.
When I got an email a few weeks ago, it said the icons were shipping and would arrive the middle of the next week. The situation was humorous since I had been home for weeks on end and during the one week of the summer I was away, the long-awaited icons were delivered to my doorstep, where they waited for my arrival a few days later. Of course, I exclaimed, to anyone who would listen to me, of course the icons arrive when I cannot be there to get the package.
A couple of days later, I learned of the death of a dear friend of the family. There are dozens of memories of my childhood and young adult life that I can return to and find this man filling the scene with his lively personality. He and his wife were friends of my parents. They were present for important sacraments and were the babysitters for my younger sister and me on occasion. Later, they were my bosses as I worked for them during the late-summer and fall. So many reflections on their frequent presence in my life and the unique role they had in relation to my family. Over the next few days, my family and I reminisced over the eccentricities and humor of our beloved friend.
When I returned home a few days later, I retrieved the package on my doorstep, grateful that it wasn’t damaged by rain or heat. I opened up my package and saw the two delayed icons.
The Raising of Lazarus from the dead
“Epitaphios”–an image of the body of Christ used in Orthodox and Byzantine liturgies at the end of Holy Week
When it comes to “love languages,” I believe quality time is one of the top ones for me to give and receive. Words of affirmation, however, are not very easy for me to give and while I don’t mind/like to receive them, they don’t top the simple gift of spending time with someone.
The exception for this might come with students.
Over the course of teaching, I have had some very grateful students. Students who would thank me daily as they left the classroom or who wrote a nice Christmas card or who simply wrote my name down in their weekly journal under the list of three things they were thankful for that week. Sweet and considerate, some students will even apologize for the bad behavior of other students.
Generally speaking, however, teenagers are not the most grateful human beings. They are prone to complain when school involves schoolwork or when assignments have a due date. Things they cannot change, things that are pretty reasonable, and things that are simply a course of life are all fodder for criticism or complaints. Writing in complete sentences is even viewed as a form of punishment instead of a basic habit of the literate. The longer I teach, the more I am open to their feedback while also aware that essentially never will all students be pleased at the exact same time.
Knowing this, it makes the compliments all the more sweet when they arrive, which is perhaps part of the genius of the teenager. Since my position as a teacher is at times compared to that of a jailer or a dictator, when I hear specific words of gratitude from students, it means far more than they could possibly know. Knowing that 98% of the time I won’t be thanked makes the other 2% really sweet. I don’t think teaching is the only job where it seems like the people you work most closely with are the least grateful, but it is the job with which I have the most experience.
Venerable Francis Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận spent thirteen years imprisoned in Communist Vietnam without receiving a trial. Of those thirteen years, nine were spent in solitary confinement. The prison conditions he suffered in makes the prison I go to for prison ministry look like a luxurious hotel. From his cell being so humid that mushrooms grew on his sleeping mat to his cell light being left on (or off) for days at a time, Venerable Francis suffered in ways I cannot fathom.
Yet from this suffering emerges a life shaped and formed in the crucible of humiliation. Despite the hatred of his persecutors, he continued to seek after the Lord. Years after being released from prison, Venerable Francis wrote Five Loaves and Two Fish, a simple yet profound book based on his experiences in prison. While most of us cannot relate to the particulars of his life, the truths that emerge are ones that ought to resonate deeply with each of us.
The general theme of his book, as you may have guessed, is based on the Gospel where the little boy offers the little he has (five loaves and two fish) to feed the multitudes present. The boy doesn’t know how it will be enough, but he trusts that offering it to the Lord is what he is called to do. Venerable Francis focuses on the little that we can do to offer ourselves to the Lord. He went from an active ministry as a bishop, serving God’s people with energy and zeal to a life imprisoned, unable to speak to his flock or do the work God was allowing him to do before. Yet even in this lack, or perhaps especially in this lack, he finds that God is still working, just not as he expected.
The book is short and beautiful, so I recommend getting a copy and pouring over the simple truths found in it. But I wanted to highlight two points that stood out to me.
The first truth Francis shares is to live in the present moment. Honestly, if I were confined to a cell for nine years, I might be inclined to live in anywhere but the present moment. The perspective Francis has is, “If I spend my time waiting, perhaps the things I look forward to will never happen. The only thing certain to come is death.” Keeping in mind where he found himself when he considered those words, it was reasonable for Francis to assume he would not survive prison. He chose to embrace the moment and do what he could with what he had.
Through the smuggling efforts of a seven-year-old, Francis sent out messages of hope that he composed during the night. He focused on filling each moment to the brim with love, concentrating on each gesture toward the guards being as loving as possible. The fruit of this was the conversion of many guards. Initially, they rotated the guards often so that he wouldn’t convert them, but then they decided to keep the same ones with him so he would convert as few as possible.
Every time I go to the ocean or sea I think of where I grew up. Mountains in their majestic reaching for the heavens are beautiful. Forests brimming with greenery and a thick growth of trees are lovely. Sprawling canyons surrounded by arid, desert bloom have a foreign intrigue. But water, rolling and churning as far as the eye can see, makes me think of home.
Some consider that odd since I grew up on the prairie. But I find it necessary every now and then to get somewhere I am able to breathe. When I stand by the water and am able to look until the earth curves, I feel a sense of freedom, a deep breath builds interiorly that needs to be exhaled as all that confines falls away. And though the ocean and sea embody an exotic newness that I’ve never fully explored, they also contain within them a sense of home.
The other day I was driving and spent a long time marveling at how the tall prairie grasses rolled so wave-like under the ever-present prairie wind. The pliant bending of the grasses followed by their rebounding over and over again was simple yet lovely. It made me want to tell my neighbors that the reason I mow so infrequently is because I love our prairie heritage and would love to see the oceanic movements in my own backyard. Instead, I drove on as I gratefully took in the ebb and flow of the grass, resilient and fierce despite the slender bowing.
This need to breathe and to have the space to do so is one of the reasons I couldn’t last long in a big city. As it is, the city I live in causes me to feel slightly suffocated, something I don’t realize until I’m driving into the country and feel myself unconsciously breathing deeper and freer. I thrive on the flat prairie, a gaze that goes on and on with a vastness that yearns to be appreciated.
I was listening to one of the first podcasts released by Brandon Vogt and Fr. Blake Britton on their new podcast called “The Burrowshire Podcast.” It was about the call to be saints and they spoke about how although at times they both find themselves desiring to live in different time periods, they were created with souls for now. In fact, it is God’s desire that they be saints right now, in the midst of everything good and bad that surrounds them.
As someone who often feels old (not age-wise, but like from a different era), I resonate with the lingering desire to be alive at a different point in human history. Yet God isn’t mistaken in placing me in this very particular point in time, complete with my longings and desires for things of bygone eras. I suppose many of the saints felt the same way, too. But to consider that I have a soul that is crafted for this point in history is something I hadn’t yet considered.
What does that even mean?
I appreciate the intentionality that this reveals about the Lord’s actions. With our own unique gifts and talents, we were fashioned to be alive today. Instead of misfits from a different age, we are exactly where (and when) we ought to be. Which means holiness is possible now. In fact, for us, holiness in the present is the only option. Despite my feelings to the contrary, I wasn’t fashioned to be holy in a different time period. With all of my intricacies, failings, and strengths, I was created to be holy here and now.
Marie Kondo advocates asking yourself if the things that fill your house spark joy. While I don’t live her method, there is something intriguing about asking that question about the items that fill our visual landscape. Many things in my home don’t do that (I suppose I find it hard for spoons and forks to greatly spark joy in me—yet they are pretty useful for eating), but it is perhaps more interesting to consider the things that do fall into that category.
During the pandemic, I’ve spent a lot of time at home. But given this abundance of time at home, I notice that my affections continue to be drawn to particular things in my home and I find once again compelled to acknowledge that beautiful, practical (and impractical) items are so helpful for ushering joy into our lives.
For example, I have a wooden serving tray and it is perhaps odd the number of times I stop to admire the varying grains that run across and throughout the wood. Either as I’m arranging food on it or washing it off, I generally am thinking, “This is so beautiful.”
Or I have a serving bowl that was handpainted in Italy that I purchased last summer while in Assisi. The bright colors that fill the interior bring me a thrill of joy every time I fill it with salad or an array of fruit. As I use it, I frequently remember the peace of Assisi, the quiet of the streets during our time there, and the beauty of being in a place so old.
One day, during the upheaval of school from home, I was helping my niece with her homework. While smart and a quick learner, she didn’t appreciate the corrections I was offering as I critiqued the direction of her 2s or her S. I encouraged her to try again, despite the initial frustration of getting it wrong.
As she was begrudgingly doing it again, I thought about how so much of a child’s life is learning how to do things. Naturally, that involves a lot of trial and error as they learn to walk, read, write, ride a bike, hit a softball, do a cartwheel, snap their fingers, and the list goes on and on. Children have to start so often from a place of humble acceptance of their inability to do something they want to do.
I think I could learn a lot from that disposition.
In my life, it is easy to stay safe and do the things I know how to do or think I can do well. When it comes to looking like a fool, I’ve never been much of a risk-taker. I much prefer to watch and see how others do it before attempting something on my own. Yet some things can only be learned by trying, failing, and trying again.
I am going to hold a pistol to the head of the Modern Man. But I shall not use it to kill him–only to bring him to life.
Innocent Smith in Manalive, GK Chesterton
The priest at Mass the other day posed the question: if it was possible to know, would you want to know when you would die?
As a melancholic, death is never too far from my mind and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While I don’t have strong feelings about the question one way or the other, I was thinking of some of the benefits of knowing when I would die, even if there is wisdom in not knowing. Sometimes, when death is clearly imminent, it compels us to truly embrace living. When our time is definitively short, we can move from passive existence to passionately experiencing life.
Is that type of wholehearted living reserved only for those who know death is at their door? Could I do that now? If people are able to live more when death comes close, could we just do now what we would do if we knew?
It made me consider how I would change my life if I knew the times of other events. Besides death, there are many other things that seem to be unknown yet shape how I live. For example, if I knew within the next year I would meet someone I would marry, would it change how I live? I believed that I would. What if it was five years, would that change how I live now? Yes, it would. What if I knew I would never get married? Again, yes.
And then I asked myself an important question: why?
Of course there was some stress involved, but the school year ended with fairly little fanfare and at a much slower pace than usual. No massive liturgies to plan for hundreds of people, no finals to prepare, no feeling like everything needs to happen right now. I fully understand that this pandemic is causing suffering for many people, but I can’t help but consider the blessings found in the midst of the difficulties.
For a variety of reasons, this school year was difficult in different ways. I found myself stressed and in continual need of a break. Many life-giving things were happening in my life, yet the breaks from school were never long enough, the time to relax never quite rejuvenating enough, my grasp on responsibilities never quite firm enough. After overcoming the initial stress of the transition, I slid into an indefinite period of teaching from home….relieved.
The time gave me the gift of reading a little more, enjoying the comforts of home much more, and the unchosen halt of many ministries. Things I could never say “no” to before (and I don’t generally have a problem saying no), like some work responsibilities, and things I enjoy, like prison ministry, were suddenly over or put on a long pause. While there was a sadness in missing some things, I mostly found the break to be good for me. And as a definite introvert, I was really okay with hours spent alone at home. With nine weeks of teaching from home wrapping up, I can honestly say I never got very sick of being at home. Sometimes staring at a computer screen was painful or the endless assignments that needed grading were unwelcomed. Despite all of that, the pandemic provided the opportunity to come up for a breath of much needed air.