Monday, November 20, 2006


I was asked last week to give the reflection at our school's "Wednesday Worship," and since it was an autobiographical reflection about my academic journey, I thought I would share it with you as well.


When I was asked last week to reflect autobiographically about my academic and faith journeys, I thought it would be pretty straightforward. Afterall, I have been thinking a lot about this recently in preparing applications, and journey, as a metaphor, is fairly rich. Or is it? Before beginning, I want to be careful to qualify my growing understanding of "journey" as a metaphor, both because I believe it is on the verge of becoming too trite and overused, and because I am coming to a deeper understanding of it.

"Journey" has always connoted to me an active movement from A to B, but with the added benefit of also appreciating the in between, the "getting there". I feel like this is a far too simplistic understanding, however, that needs further unpacking and qualification, since I have been growing, recently to a more richer understanding of journey that is not nearly so active (in its traditional sense). This more difficult understanding of "journey" which is maturing in me, puts emphasis on the meaning-laden pauses, the patient waiting, the sinuous detours, and the attentiveness to the surroundings that you can only get by stopping. I want to be careful to say that this understanding of journey is active, though it may not be physically so. The reflective work that is necessary in these pauses is significant and should not be minimized. I say this is a more difficult understanding of journey for me because, for those of you who know me-I am very concerned with the "getting there," and have been of the mind that any hesitation or sidetrack should be seen as a result of my fallenness or my inability, and therefore minimized or suppressed.

I suppose this understanding of pauses as sinful comes in part from a simplistic reading of the exodus-that the wandering in the desert was purely a result of Israel's sinfulness. If they had only been less whiny, better listeners, more obedient-they would have been enjoying the milk and honey so much sooner! I think now, however, that the exodus-spanning several books of the Older Testament-can be better appreciated as a meaning-filled pause, an encouragement to not be so worried about "getting there" that one misses the significance of "being here."

One such passage from the Exodus story is particularly striking in this regard-it comes just after the Israelites fled Egypt, crossed the Red Sea, saw their captors drown, and had a party on the banks. I can imagine that they have an unbelievable amount of momentum for their journey-a kind of "what are we waiting for, let's get to the Promised Land" attitude. But no. Right after "the horse and its rider God has hurled into the sea" comes this story:

Exodus 15: 22-27

"Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur. For three days they traveled in the desert without finding water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter. (That is why the place was called Marah.) So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, "What are we to drink?" Then Moses cried out to the Lord and the Lord showed him a piece of wood. He threw it into the water, and the water became sweet. There the Lord made a decree and a law for them, and there he tested them. He said, "If you listen carefully to the voice of the Lord you God and do right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord who heals you." Then they came to Elim, where there were 70 palm trees and they camped there near the water." (NIV translation)

Instead of moving right into the promised land, the Israelites had to wait. God was to test them, it says, though it wasn't specified whether this was just for this moment, or whether it could encompass the entire desert wandering (or even more!). But God would also heal and provide for them. This was to be a meaningful pause, a patient waiting-taking time to appreciate the "being here." This passage comes to me as such a gem-right in the middle of the desert at the beginning of their journey to the promised land, God provides the Israelites with Elim-the place of large trees. The desert isn't just something that is to be hurried through to get to the other side-the Israelites had a lot of growing to do as God's people before they got there. While not always pleasant (could these large trees be on a white sandy beach instead of in the middle of the desert?!), God still promised to provide for them in the waiting.

What I find especially striking and a bit ironic about this biblical waiting, is how it coincides with one of my own meaningful pauses. After college graduation, full of momentum (escaping Trinity Christian College; crossing the graduation stage; having a big party... doesn't this sound familiar?), I found myself in a humbling period of extended unemployment, with no promising possibilities in my field of teaching. I wanted to go to graduate school, but it wasn't the right time. I found myself needing to wait, though I wasn't patient about it, and at the time, it didn't seem very meaningful. Interestingly, I found myself, like the Israelites, at Elim. Though not quite the picture of palm trees and waterfront property that the Bible makes out, this was Chicago, afterall-it was a job. My time at Elim was very much still a time in the desert, though there was a providence in that desert that I could hardly see as anything but graciousness. It is striking to me looking back, how I interpreted ironically the water and the palm trees that was on Elim Christian Schools' sign. This was no picnic year for me. But maybe it was the year of reflection that I needed in order to get ready for the next step. I have consistently resisted calling this year of working with boys with autism a "year off," as is typical language for people in graduate school who don't go "straight through." However, I am still in the process of truly appreciating my year in Elim, in finding the meaning in the pause, in being grateful for the "being there."

I feel so painfully slow in learning my lessons. Before fully comprehending the meaningful pause that was my literal Elim, another, figurative one is upon me. While I am still in school, and there has been no pausing to speak of in recent history-the uncertainties of the coming year are looming large. Elim Christian School is miles behind me, but I am once again in a place where I must wait patiently upon decisions and live faithfully in the "being here." I am not yet ready to go on to the next step in my educational journey-that is for a time that is yet beyond me, maybe next fall and maybe later than that. Right now I must do all that I can to take advantage of these moments of reflection that PhD applications have been granting me, and continue till completion the journey already before me.

Forced or chosen-there are numerous opportunities in our daily lives to benefit from meaningful pauses. I am still learning to rest in God's providing and the assurance of God's testing. Will it be in my current "Elim" that I rest in the shade of the palm trees near the water? Or will I miss this meaning-filled pause on my journey? Will you?


Since I do much better extemporaneously than I do with a manuscript in public speaking, this is a rough summary of what I said last Wednesday. I did like that after my reflections we opened the floor for everyone to share about their meaningful pauses. I would love to hear how you all reflect on difficult times in your journeys...

Friday, November 17, 2006

Christmas Flood

When you live in a basement apartment, you must accept certain risks. One of these is that in times of heavy precipitation you may find that some areas of your dwelling will develop a certain level of saturation.

It rained a lot one day, but this particular risk did not come to our minds. After a busy day, Yvana had nothing on her mind aside from getting home in one piece while attempting to slip through bouts of rain, both of which she accomplished. I was thinking about making dinner, about what I was reading, and about my upcoming meeting with my adviser. This meeting was causing me a fair amount of anxiety, mostly because I secretly get anxious about everything. Usually I conceal this through outright denial. But that day I chose my fallback: procrastination. So I prepared cookie dough instead of completing my report essay.

The rain had just started up again when Yvana was a block away, but this was just the light precursor to the downpour that started after she was inside. I had expected her later, so I began the fried rice-making procedure when I heard her keys at the door. The eggs were scrambled in the oil by the time her helmet was on its shelf.

We exchanged our stories from the day. A stressful experience on the phone. Good seminar, but concluded a half-hour late. Copied readers. Success in returning a bicycle pump. Failure in replacing a watch battery. Dinner was now ready, and shared in the spaces between conversation.

We preheated the oven for the cookies. When the first batch was coming out, there was a knock at the door. Our landlord wanted to see if there was any seepage in some problem spots since it had been raining most of the day. Yvana showed her around as I prepared the second batch. No leaks by the furnace, and I had successfully banished my upcoming meeting from my mind while resisting the urge to sample the batter.

Yvana was leading the way to the bathroom inspection when the sheet was in the oven. I didn't think there was much I could contribute to the situation, so I stood in the kitchen and read the bank statement we had just received.

They were finished with the bathroom and were moving into the utility room while I attempted to understand why, “As of November 30 Citibank will no longer offer World Wallet Drafts for purchase,” was under the Suggestions and Recommendations heading. I heard some commotion in the front of the apartment as I searched for the promised “more information listed on this statement.” Stymied. This didn't seem to offer any recommendation, while the suggestion seemed to be too vague to be of any good. Finance mystifies me. I wondered the context of this bank statement would count as some kind of Wittgensteinian private language game.

Just before the timer called out, I noticed Yvana and the landlord taking things out of the closet and placing them in the hallway, followed by some kind of exclamation. I scraped the cookies off the sheet bitterly—they were flat. I had mixed the dough when I got back from the coffee shop, so it had sat for several hours before baking. That probably did it.

When the last batch was in the oven most of our belongings, formerly in the utility closet, littered the hallway and bedroom. The landlord offered some apologies, then ascended the stairs to get some towels. She scattered them around the closet, then left with the cookie we offered her. The last batch of unleavened baked goods was out, and I finished washing the dishes. I sealed the cookies up after they were cool enough, hoping to preserve what moisture was still in them.

We assessed the damage over cups of tea—peppermint for Yvana, orange pekoe for me. Most of the stuff we stored was in plastic bins, or on makeshift shelves. We had some experiences last year with this same location, so we were prepared. The only thing that sustained worrisome damage was a cardboard box full of Christmas decorations. We steeled ourselves for the worst, and opened the container.

The leak in the closet must have been fairly recent. Although the outside of the cardboard was soaked, it had for the most part not touched the items inside. We aired them out for good measure.

As we removed the ornaments, we realized that we had not seen them for two years, since we have never had a proper Christmas tree on which to hang them. They were mostly Yvana's. Her relatives had a tradition of giving ornaments every year, a tradition that began the year her sister was born and continued to the year we were married. She had memories attached to each one, some more significant than others. One was labeled as a gift from her great aunt just before she passed away. It was three winged humans holding hands around a star. On one side, the hands of one figure had broken, creating a rupture in the circle. Yvana reminisced.

“She was Catholic. I never understood why she only had one kid. But my uncle was protestant. So there you go.”

The only ornaments I recognized were the ones we received in 2004. Thin, crystal things with, “First Christmas Together” etched in calligraphy. I tapped my ring against one. Thin, plastic things with, “First Christmas Together” etched in calligraphy.

“You're going to break them.”

“I did the same thing to your ceramic “Precious Moments” one and it was just fine.”

“Well, you'll break those too.”

I held up an ornament consisting of a snowman's head attached to a string.

“We should start a snowman theme.” She glanced around the collection, noticing the snowman paraphernalia scattered on the floor. “I guess it's already started.”

I turned back to my snowman head.

“Somewhere, there is a decapitated snowman wandering the aisles of a Hallmark store.”

She laughed. As we sat on the living room rug she explained that she would line them up in chronological order before she hung them every year. We ordered them accordingly, and as she explained the significance and story surrounding each one I lost interest around 1993. Glancing at the bookshelf I noticed my copy of The Oxford Illustrated History of English Literature. I pulled it off the shelf and opened it to the entry on Muriel Spark. I began to read. Yvana graciously overlooked my rejection, and started to go about the process of gathering the undamaged ornament boxes.

“Is there a small box for these?”

There was no catalog of our empty boxes in my memory. I wondered why she couldn't get up and look for herself. I was working my way back in my gloss of English literature and had already reached Forester. She looked at me with her hands full of ornaments when I grunted in response to her question. She asked it again.


“So what are we going to do with these?”

I was perfectly enjoying the moment I was having with late 19th century novelists and didn't understand why she had to keep pestering me.

“Don't you have a report to write anyway?


“Mike, is this really the best use of your time?”

I felt blood rush to my throat, which I should have known was a bad sign. I set the book aside at George Eliot.

“Why can't you get the box?”

“I thought you said there was no box.”

“To my perception there was no box. Do you see any boxes right here? I don't know what we have. You know where we keep them. Why did you have to ask me?”

She stared at me incredulously.

“I figured you would help.”

“Well, I thought this was a poor use of my time.”

“Fine, we'll leave them here.” She got up. I had every intention of continuing the argument. I have found that sometimes doing what it was that was asked of you before the fight began needlessly escalates the situation. So I grabbed a box.

“Mike, I said just leave it if that's how you want to do this.”

“Fine.” I dropped the box in the middle of the room.

I stalked back to the desk, picking a path through the Hallmark and Precious Moments figurines littering the hallway, and attempted to resume my reading of Jean Leclercq on Bernard of Clarivaux. Page 169 of The Love of Learning and the Desire for God contains a quote from Bernard where he is explaining a passage from the Rule of Benedict.

“Then come the spiritual gyrovagues: their inconsistency carries them from reading to prayer, from prayer to work, preventing them from obtaining the benefits of their undertakings: stability in effort and perseverance in devotion. Victims of acedia, they think it better at one moment to do one thing, and, at another, something else; they begin everything and finish nothing.”

I looked back at the ornaments on the floor. I smelled the lingering odor of burnt, flat cookies. I saw the anthology open on its spine to George Eliot. I glanced up at the half-written report. I continued reading—“loving only themselves, pursuing only their own interests, they go about...” I thought of the box in the middle of the floor—“creating cliques and divisions, never ceasing to sown unrest in the flock of the Lord through the obstinacy with which they defend their egos and their individuality.”

I sipped my tea. It had grown cold. I thought, why didn't I chose chamomile?

Friday, November 10, 2006

Mike's Encounters...

I wandered through the labyrinthine nylon straps, tensely interconnected. I would have detached one end from its post to cut through the needless path, but remembered that when I tried this trick before the barrier promptly escaped my hand under the mystical force of a retracting spool. This caused a loud, satisfyingly awkward snap and gained me the irate glare of a clerk at the Bank 1. I was pretty happy with the result at the Bank 1, but I figured this particular situation did not call for such defiance straightaway. This could all be resolved through peaceful, diplomatic skill if the encounter went according to plan. I had a brief vision as I snaked toward the empty service desk: the aftermath of an encounter gone bad. I pictured myself unhooking or charging through each tape, dragging the posts along behind me. Then I bumped into one of the stands and found they are surprisingly sturdy. Instead I imagined how ridiculous I would look lying on the floor tangled in a sinewy mess of black belts.

With an air of graciousness, I approached the final bend and leaned against the faux-granite countertop. I have one recourse in such a situation, an attitude I call my disarmingly helpless charm. I attempted to activate it. The librarian glanced up, unimpressed.


“Hi. I have a problem... With my account.”

“Card.” I wasn't sure if this was a statement, request, or command. I assumed it to be a combination of all three, and fumbled my student identification to her. She swiped it over a scanner reminiscent of a grocery check-out.

“They say... well, the computer says... my account shows that I haven't returned a book and I have a fine now. But I know I returned it. I put it in the outside slot last week because I was on my bike. I have done that before, and never—“

“This the one?” She swiveled the computer screen to a position where I could half see it. This obliged me to lean over the broad counter in an awkwardly suggestive manner, which made me uncomfortable. Part of me wanted to answer snidely that there was only one entry listed as delinquent on my account. Did she think I was complaining about a lost return that I imagined was going to happen in the future?

“I think so,” I answered humbly, my frustration beginning to well. A few moments of silence as the mouse clicked and various things flashed across the screen.

“Why did you renew it twice?” She glared at me.

“Because I wasn't done reading it.” I was a bit incredulous since the question seemed to have only one reasonable answer. Or was she accusing me of having lost the book, and extending the return date to postpone the inevitable fallout? And if such was the case, did she really expect me to crack under her Matlock-like questioning?

“Hm.” More silence. “It shows here that it wasn't returned.” It was readily apparent to me that this was precisely the reason I was speaking to her at this moment, yet this observation was offered as a prophetic utterance. The visions of my triumphal march through the crowd control maze began to take shape again in my imagination.

“But I did return it, to the outside slot, last week on the day it was due, and I want to check it out again. If the library lost it, is there another copy I could check out?” Contemporary Hermeneutics by Josef Bleicher. An excellent book, and I did need it again. The six weeks total of borrowing time including all renewals was ridiculously short, and I couldn't help but think that if I had been extended the proper borrowing privileges befitting a grad student this whole sordid affair would never have happened. But I realized too late how aggressive this must have sounded, and wondered if she had somehow been privy to the tirade babbling through my brain.

“...” More clicking. “You have to contact the Fines and Overdues Department and file a formal appeal with them. Your account will continue to accrue fines until a decision has bee reached.” I admit, this was a bit stunning. I half expected an argument or something of the like, but instead I was referred to another mound of bureaucracy. How could I respond to non-action and non-recognition?

“Fine. Do you have another copy of this particular text?” I was insistent on this point.

“...Yeah. Copies here, OISIE, and Vic.”

Thank you.” I stalked away, following the ropes to the exit where I spilled out into the crowd of students sweeping toward the elevators. There, I dutifully flashed my identification again, realizing that the attendant at the elevator never even looked at me. The only thing important was the digital image of a person on this flimsy sheet of plastic.

On the way to the ninth floor I tried to imagine what I looked like to the system, how I fit into their understanding of the ordered universe. “Delinquent.” I was branded. They had no idea what I cared for. What my interests were. Why I wanted to read this book. Why I would renew it twice. But apparently she knew the only answer that mattered: I was a delinquent. A delinquent would obviously take any book out indiscriminately, renew it twice, hide it somewhere, then complain to her that I had a fine. I was completely one dimensional to the Nazibarian.

I marched to the section, then down the dimly lit aisle. After a quick scan of the shelves, I found the familiar cover, but the call number in the computer indicated that copy one was on the shelves. The only one I could see was copy two. Which looked quite familiar.


I remembered that there was some fairly unique marginalia in the table of contents. Someone had written brief descriptions next to selected chapters, as if this had been assigned as class reading to be copied and distributed. I flipped open the cover, and stared at these same marks.


I straightened my shoulders and marched toward the elevators. Pounding on the call button a few dozen times for measure, I clutched Contemporary Hermeneutics close to my body determined that someone would have to pry it from my rigor mortis corpse if they wanted to snatch it from me. On reaching the ground floor I tried to check it out from the machines, just to see what would happen. Item is already checked out to user. I had the truth now, and damned if I wasn't going to clobber someone with it.

I lined up at the service desk, allowing someone to go ahead of me to another employee so that I might reminisce with my friend the Nazibrarian. Maybe I should clarify: it wasn't the lost book or the process of appeal that irritated me, it was the arrogance and demeaning attitude they forced on me. Now it was time for some arrogance payback.

I self-confidently slid the book across the counter. Again, she looked unimpressed.

“I think there is a problem with this book. You see, it was on the shelf—but oddly!—this is apparently the same book you say I didn't return.” She scanned the book, then my card, which I duly produced. She sighed, and took the book to the back room. She was gone maybe two minutes.

“I'm sorry. It's all cleared up. I'm sorry.” This time she sounded a bit softer, much less arrogant.

As I slid my card back into my wallet, I noticed certain things about her that I hadn't before. Tired, baggy eyes. More wrinkles on the right side of her mouth than left. A small scar on her right ear. I wondered what her interests were, why she worked at Robarts, what life was like when she wasn't behind the service counter.

As I walked through the rotating exit doors, I thought about several of the essays in Contemporary Hermeneutics. The ones I especially liked examined the ubiquitous role of interpretation in our everyday lives, how the expectations and experiences we bring to each situation effect what we find—or what finds us. How the truth we encounter is in many ways dependent on us and what we bring to the present moment.

I thought about that librarian's face several times in the past week, both the first and second time I saw it. I wondered what or who had changed between those two encounters.

Friday, November 3, 2006

Close encounters...

I promised to write about my experience at the ICS Worldview Conference with Richard Middleton--no I haven't forgotten, though it seems that everything takes longer when I am only online when I am at school. As it happens, I am here for another "academic event"--listening to lectures by two faculty from Calvin College. We are between lectures now, and just after dinner, so I thought I would steal a few minutes to write while all my friends (and my husband) are probably cracking into one of ICS's bottles of homemade (by us) wine, and playing cards or some such thing...

The conference last Saturday was enlightening. Middleton's take on biblical interpretation is near Nik Ansell's (they graduated in the same year from the same institution!), and focused on the narrative of the biblical story as our clue to interpretation. A welcome perspective, I think, which opens up a lot of the possibilities of the Bible to speak to us today. I am not going to dwell on this point, however, but rather the workshop I attended by a fellow ICS student, working on her PhD in NY right now, which was entitled "The Role of Encounter in the Story of Creation." I think the work she did in the workshop to get us thinking about the idea of encounter was so good, I want to take it as the theme for this blog. Encounters can be scary, but they can also be a source of possibility and discovery that is very positive. I think that the story of our last week can be told by a series of these vulnerable and possibly frightening encounters that have led to the unfolding of possibilities (well, maybe not all of them, but we will see how I can stretch them!)

Dangerous Encounters: Yvana and the too-close-to-her-bike van--Yes, this is the story of my first biking "accident." (There are a series of ad's here in Toronto up on the subways and on TV (apparently) about workplace safety and avoiding using the term "accidents" since most of them are preventable, and this is no exception, I am afraid). I was biking to school with Mike behind me, and after crossing an intersection (one of my least favorite spots on the way because of poor visibility and bumpy roads) I looked behind me to see a van trying to get around the streetcar, just as I was trying to get around a pothole. Needless to say, I'm sure, I had a very close encounter with this van, getting bumped twice and flying over the right side of my bike to bruise my pride fairly badly and scrape my knee (through two pairs of pants--good thing I had them on!). Thank goodness I had my helmet on--when I knew I was going to be falling I just let myself go, in a sense, knowing that I had lots of padding to protect me, considering it is nearly winter! and it would be better than fighting it at that point. I wasn't badly hurt, as all the good people of Toronto within sight came to discover. We even got to speak to a fellow biker who had been in a similar situation at this very intersection, who did what he could to right me and calm me afterward as well. Not a pleasant encounter, but also one that, if it has to happen, worked out about the best that it could. I believe that the possibility is opened here for a new pair of jeans!

Embodied Encounters: Yvana versus seminar presentations-- I had the daunting task this week of presenting for both of my classes--which are, as some of you know, on adjacent days: Thursday and Friday. I think they both went fairly well, and at least got some related discussion started... I spoke today about the relationship between the mind and the body in knowing--something that is very important to me, and something that I hope to do a lot more work with. Without getting into the specific and dirty details, I hope to get beyond the dualism between mind and body (as many of my professors have advised me) and talk about the embodied mind, or rather the body as the mind, or the mind as the body... I don't know what formulation exactly that I am going to work with, but I am somehow hoping to see these together.

To be continued with:

Confrontative Encounters: Mike versus the (un)penetrable bureaucracy of Robarts Library...

Disembodied Encounters: Mike versus the world...