"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Drawing: Why Pa Pham Wasn’t Paying Attention in Class

I had to share this bittersweet piece of art with a wider audience. Sam (Pa Pham), a Vietnamese student, was evidently not all that engaged in the lesson during her last day in class. Though, she seemed like it, so maybe it’s more generous to assume she is just an excellent multi-tasker. I can’t relate, I guess; when I try to multi-task I do stupid stuff like slice open my finger.

The drawing below (the second picture is a zoomed-in version of part of the larger) contains the faces of the Fall C-1 (Pre-Advanced) English class. There’s really no such thing as a “Fall C-1” class, given the way the system works at EF Olympia. Students arrive and depart frequently, creating a substantial amount of turnover in class organization. Teachers are generally not with a specific group for long.

But this particular group was intact for several weeks, until one-by-one they started leaving, perhaps heading off to an American university or back to their home country to study or work. Of the twelve students portrayed here, only four remain at our school today.

Isn't this the sweetest? No, probably not…many of you probably have baby pictures you think are sweeter. Everybody things pictures of their baby are the sweetest. Well these students—and I don’t mean to patronize any of you EF students who visit this blog, many of whom are my age or maybe older—are my “babies.” In my classes I feel responsible not only to offer a better grasp of what verbs most commonly pair with infinitives and which are better suited to gerunds; I feel responsible for their well-being and so attempt to be attentive, supportive, respectful, and compassionate.

Goodbyes are hard. Their coming often feels abrupt, without warning, and their happening often feels a bit lacking, unsatisfying, like they should be more cinematic or complete.

Life at EF involves a great deal of change, of coming and going, and demands flexibility from teachers and students. From my time here and from previous goodbyes from the many countries I’ve visited, I think I'm improving in my ability to accept the reality of this flux...while also gaining an ever-greater gratitude for the gift of remembering.

My dear, sweet C-1 students, from Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Turkey, Norway, Germany, Columbia, and Brazil: I hope you seek, as I have been seeking, to cultivate the virtue of remembrance. To a certain extent, I suspect that my memories are as real and present as those very real and present things which can be touched.

In my own faith tradition, remembering is essential. Remembering grounds me in what I believe to be the great narrative of God and humankind. It is in remembering that I am centered, empowered, given direction and given hope.

And through remembering the people and communities with whom my life has intersected, I am given an extraordinary sense of joy. In the end, it is these people and my experiences with these people that clarify for me whether or not I'm enjoying life to the full, more than any personal ambitions and interests I may have. To open oneself to others in love may be to open oneself to suffering; but suffering, too, has meaning.

May all of you, and myself, while recognizing the necessity of letting go and the inevitability of losing the immediacy of physical presence...may we nonetheless make the effort to bring to consciousness from time to time the people whose paths have crossed our own, people who may have shaped our identity in some small way and perhaps enhanced our enjoyment of life in some small way as well.

And may you not hesitate to spy on one another through facebook. J

Thanks, Sam, for capturing so wonderfully the special community that formed through several weeks together. There are many such communities at EF Olympia, I'm sure. But I’m honored to have been a part of this particular one.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

When Sweet Potatoes Force You to Slow Down

Sometimes I move too quickly, I think. I enter into on-a-mission mode, trying to be as efficient with my time as possible, cramming a lot into a little. It comes from a good place, maybe—I do want to manage my time well, after all.

But sometimes tunnel vision takes over, and my current pace becomes the last word, and any person or persons who would deter me from fulfilling my task at my current pace become enemies. The driver who’s clearly talking on her phone and thus less aware of the traffic situation; the guy crossing the street at a snail’s pace; the person with poor line or crowd etiquette who is clearly disrupting the flow; even my wife, who just wants to get the milk out of the fridge and intends no malice by entering into the path I’ve apparently determined is my own.

So when God slash the universe slash needless haste slash inevitability decided to slash open my middle finger last week, I guess I should have seen it coming. The rapidly moving vehicle that is me probably needed a flat.

I was cutting sweet potatoes last Tuesday night…we’re on a bit of a SP kick lately. Those suckers are hard to cut! And I still can’t figure out how it happened, but somehow because of an inadequate knife or because I was slicing too quickly, the serrated knife must have slipped...and sliced right into the inner portion of my middle finger.

I ran to the bathroom, trying to both cleanse and bandage the wound before I had to sit down, as I nearly passed out. Shortly after that, I became extremely cold. Several people have since asked me if I have difficulty with blood (assuming my symptoms indicated shock), to which I responded that if I do have a problem with blood, I’m not conscious of it.

Besides the pain and a little bit of fear (is a bandage sufficient, should I be going to the hospital in case stitches are needed, etc.), there was some upside. I had a lot to do that night, or so I felt. I always have something I need to be doing; at least that’s how I tend to operate. I need to be working toward some future goal, need to be preparing for my morning classes well ahead of time, need to be doing something purposeful. But I spent the rest of the evening curled up in a blanket on the couch, my wife attending to me, both of us knowing that remaining still and relaxed was probably the best thing for me. I did nothing; it was lovely.

It has been a bit of a wake-up call. That sounds a bit hyperbolic, so maybe I can soften that by saying it at least got me thinking, made me aware of a very basic, much-needed discipline that I often neglect—slowness. It’s not a Richard Foster/Dallas Willard type of discipline, I don’t believe, though I’m sure there are elements of “slowness” in those other spiritual disciplines.

The wound appears to be healing, though I imagine it will leave a scar. Which is fine with me; scars seem a humbling, clarifying reminder that we’re fragile, delicate, capable of being hurt, limited, and finite.

I have a scar on my lower right leg from falling off wooden stilts in the first grade. I love it; it’s like a tattoo, but a permanent mark that reminds me not simply of a personal value (as a tattoo might) but of the fact that there’s more to my life than the present moment, that I have a whole history, and that I have a future; it keeps me connected to my life narrative, which is important. It’s easy to get shortsighted and assume that things won’t get better or change; or, oppositely, that they haven’t gotten better or changed.

I’ve bandaged my finger in a way that keeps the knuckle from bending (to maximize healing speed…is it contrary to my goal here to want the wound to heal as rapidly as possible?). It’s necessitated a much slower pace; I have to be more deliberate about things I’m doing, like cooking, doing dishes, packing bags, opening doors, etc. I cannot say without grossly exaggerating that it’s opened my eyes to the depths of beauty in every facet of life; but I guess I at least have faith that’s it’s in some way making my life richer, deeper, better.

And it hasn’t been without humor. I tried to give a co-worker a thumbs-up with my left hand earlier this week, but couldn’t bend my bandaged finger correctly and so flipped her off. That story got told and retold a few times that day.

I don’t think moving at a high speed is sinful, evil, ungodly. But I do find that when I get fixated on one thing, other things can get tuned out, including people. When my plans get thwarted, I sometimes suspect that those plans or momentary goals had become a bit of an idol, to put it strongly—something demanding way more of my focus and attention and time than it should.

That can be anything from cutting sweet potatoes in an arbitrarily chosen short amount of time, to how quickly I expect to get through the grocery line, to larger, career-like ambitions that can be quite consuming. My "great" character doesn’t shine as much as I’d like it to when my trajectory is interrupted.

Here’s a fun experiment that you might join me in. Try to catch yourself moving quickly at something and then…deliberately slow down, paying attention to everything that is happening in you, around you, every little detail, every step…everything.

Or if speediness is not your vice…pick up the pace and see how that feels. J For me it’s the “doing” that needs to be restrained; I could use a little more of what Taoists call “wu wei”—literally “not doing.” Or maybe still “doing” it…just in a lower gear. (And surfing the internet in a comfy chair does not qualify as wu wei for me.)

Oh, and we didn’t end up having sweet potatoes that night. We ordered a pizza.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Forming New Traditions

I’m presently sitting in the red chair, which is not where it has been for nearly the entirety of our life in Olympia; it has been relocated to accommodate our Christmas tree.

Rearranging furniture is a pastime developed in my childhood, one that has been somewhat stifled in my marriage, except for the office/second bedroom, where my other half permits me to do pretty much anything I want with the furniture. It’s a nice compromise. But with the acquisition of our second (third?) annual Christmas tree, I was given free rein in the living room.

The red chair sits next to the Christmas tree, facing the fireplace. I’m thinking back to last night and the multisensory satisfaction experienced. I sat reading James Wm. McClendon’s Ethics, roaring fire warming my bare feet, rum and coke to my left and Christmas tree to my right, from which I’d occasionally pick needles and stick them partially in my nostrils, breathing in the evergreen-y goodness. Comprehensively satisfied.

The advent of the Christmas season and the obtaining of our tree has left me thinking again about the meaning of traditions, as I’m sure it does for many. I shared nearly a year ago some of my favorite traditions over the years: “Top Ten Favorite Christmas Traditions." But I’ve also been thinking about the significance of those new traditions being formed.

Theologically speaking, “tradition” is a concept whose depths and importance I did not really understand as a younger Christian. Tradition mostly had negative connotations for me, probably associated with the stubbornness of some who held too tightly to rituals that became idols in themselves, not means of leading one to something deeper...be that connectedness to God, more excellent moral character, fuller enjoyment of life, or deeper unity with others.

But despite what I judge as its misuse, I know how much tradition and/or ritual can be centering, life-giving, life-shaping. The Christian tradition is that—a tradition. At its best, it is a history of individuals and communities attempting to carry on the tradition of Jesus. It’s like a story we retell, but not simply with words but with what we prioritize and value, how we spend our time, the things we do.

And despite the value of spontaneity, creativity, fresh expression, individuality, and attempts at cultural relevancy, there’s a significance to simply doing what’s been done before: looking to “saints” who’ve best embodied what our tradition values, singing songs we know, practicing ancient disciplines, etc.

Perhaps some traditions need to be abandoned over time, either because they’ve lost their usefulness (e.g., a particular way that tithes/offerings are taken on Sunday) or because our understanding has evolved (e.g., women’s capacity for Christian leadership). But other traditions continue to endure, perhaps for their ability to comfort, center, connect, unite, or connect us with the mystery and sublimity of life, with God. They are profound, and also, maybe more simply, are just plain fun.

For Joann and I, depending on your reckoning, this is either our tenth, fourth, third, or second Christmas. She was my “backup date” (I humbly accept your "boo's" here) to a dorm event at George Fox our freshman year, joining me at Zoolights in Portland after my original date bailed (neither of us can still remember who that was…if you’re out there, confess). That event, ten years ago, was in a way our first Christmas together.

Fast forward eight years to 2009 when my then-girlfriend Joann flew to China to spend 2 ½ weeks with me during the Christmas season. Some things were different then—we didn’t share a bed, for one. And I sense some discontinuity between Christmas in a foreign country with my girlfriend and Christmas in the US with my wife. But we did have a small albeit fake tree; we did exchange gifts, and we did watch Charlie Brown and LOTR.

Creating new traditions with Joann has been fun, and I think this year, our second married Christmas together, I’ve begun to sense how tradition is slowly replacing (though not wholly eradicating) novelty—a change I enthusiastically welcome.

I once again, mid-November, permitting the unrestrained playing of Christmas music in the house...a monumental event, mind you. We again went to a Christmas tree farm and thoughtfully chose our Christmas tree, Joann being much more strategic and thoughtful than I (me: "How's this one, it's fine right, good, let's go.") We’ve been surprising each other with holiday Starbucks drinks. Joann again did most of the tree decorating while I only marginally helped, because everybody wins that way.

Like last year, we’ll be spending a couple days around Christmas at the Oregon coast, sandwiched by stays with our respective families. We again found “Candy Cane” tea, a seasonal drink we’ve missed all year, and purchased an ample amount. We again visited the tree lighting ceremony last Friday in Portland, which was fortunately not interrupted this year by a terrorist plot (read “The Few Who Give the Many a Bad Name”). We’ve even added our newest, yearly ornament (obtained in Disneyland this past September) to our tree, adopting the tradition of both our families.

It is a wonderful and unique place I’m at as a still-relatively-newlywed, where I still value and relive my family- and self-created traditions but am also in the process of forming new ones with Joann.

But I do hope that I keep these and any traditions in perspective; I’m not sure I view traditions as ends as much as means. There is comfort in rehearsing again a cherished tradition, like the comfort of crashing onto your favorite chair or couch spot after an exhausting day at work, or the comfort of indulging in a dinner in which cheese is the prominently featured source of nutrition.

Some traditions unite us and focus us, reminding us of our connection to narratives greater than our individual lives: the narrative of our family, our community, our religious tradition, or of the history of humankind. But some traditions inevitably die or must necessarily die, either because they’re no longer helpful or because in the interest of loving our partners or communities, we must sacrifice what we’ve held dear for the sake of something new that will bring life and joy and direction to others. Traditions are not the goal, but they can lead us there, I’d say.

Must return now to the fragrant bliss of needle-picking; maybe I’ll count this as my workout for the day.