In Absentia

coins for currency

(euro or zloty?)

grocery store translations

(bezglutenowe)

kilometres and °c

(military hours)

rain jackets and backpacks

(gray on gray)

locked and gated wc

(check for tissues)

curtainless shower tubs

(less spray this time)

light switches outside rooms

(occupancy)

crackers and Tesco and day up

(still looking)

windows that tilt

(handles and magic)

duvet covers

(sleep under colored dreams)

kinder eggs

(loved and left)

traffic circles

(slow or fast or straight through)

flora and fauna

(new names for old beauty)

stick shift and motorcycles

(always someday)

little cars and scuffed bumpers

(Citroën Renault Peugeot Škoda Dacia)

signs and symbols

(true in any language)

embassy flags

(look look breathe)

life in a suitcase

(what else?)

living room couches

(hotel sheets and hostel berths)

sweeter sleep than elsewhere

(even the airport floor)

bungled words and baffled English

(laughter in failure)

choosing to be here

(hunger and ache)

wishing to stay

(why?)

things that feel like home

(surrogates in absentia)

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2018 Books: April

April

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emma Orczy

Across a Star-Swept Sea by Diana Peterfreund

The Midnight Line by Lee Child

To Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson

All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance**

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Sandman, Vol. 2: The Doll’s House by Neil Gaiman et al. (graphic novel)

Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers

The Graveyard Book, Vol. 1 by Neil Gaiman et al. (graphic novelization by P. Craig Russell)

**cheating with this one. It’s a memoir, so not fictional, but it was a weighty non-school read that I felt accomplished–and pleased–to finish.

P.S. This is one of the first book lists that I have wanted to write a review for nearly every book. Maybe because I devoured the books so voraciously, maybe because they were both the removal from reality and the placement in reality that a good book should be, and because they were just darn good writing. Also because one or two needed a content warning sticker.

For Such A Time As This

Dear Dr. Fledderjohann,

You were my 8:30, my first class, my first professor. You were my introduction to what Moody would be like. And you, with your stern-faced, soft-soul-ed, no-nonsense demeanor, said teaching the Bible had to be interesting. With punctuation. And so we learned, and I took a final in the fireplace room and was proud of my work, and I took criticism in my projects and learned that I deserved it. Thank you.

Dr. Profe,

I took you because I was afraid. Of failing, mostly. At some point in class, you said that learning a language involved being willing to make mistakes, and that when that mistake-making happened, to learn to have fun with it. You said that learning a language involved the sort of failure I was afraid of. I learned to be good at it, and even if I didn’t learn how to have fun at the parts I wasn’t good at, I could at least look at you and realize it could be fun. On another note, you were the first professor whose patience I couldn’t comprehend. Thank you.

Dear Dr. Baurain,

Did I still set the record for most writing done in those minute essays? I’ve always loved to write, but I didn’t know how much I’d need those early crucial tools you gave. Your knowledge of Lewis intimidated me, your essay questions captivated me, your enthusiasm for Nebraska delighted me, and your willingness to engage in conversation taught me that professors could and should be approachable. Thank you.

Dear Dr. Park,

You are still a legend to me; an incendiary one, admittedly, but a legend in both your boldness and the fact that you still remember me–and my sister. You talked about an arena I had little technical knowledge in, and you drew it back to a region of personal impact. You taught me what it looked like to do something that I thought I already knew how to do. Thank you.

Dear Professor Worrall,

I still want to call you ‘Dr.,’ even after you corrected me. You corrected me in class, too, that first early time when the little bubble of loyalty was pricked and old griefs came spilling out. And you corrected me after class, in the pause between things you had to do and things I didn’t understand. You corrected without saying I should know these things already, and I learned–along with bold declarations of faith, deliciously creative classroom presentations, and absurdly beautiful handwriting–that teaching involved stopping and engaging, if even for a moment. Also, I still remember your teary-eyed delight at the wonder of having children. Thank you.

Dear Dr. Baker,

I think I doodled in the back row of your class quite a bit. I promise I was paying attention–truly. I had no concept of what these motions meant until I was out of the sandbox and onto the shore with waves too big for me. And then I realized that, all along, you had been trying to teach us how to swim. That was the first time I was late on a project, the first time I snuck into Fitz late so I could slip a paper under a professor’s door, and the first time I wrote a note to one and signed my name. I wanted you to know that the class mattered to me, and that you did, too. Also, my sister had said that I would want your sweaters. She was right. Thank you.

Dear Dr. Namaan,

You said you had an extra ‘A’ in your name so you could give us one. I appreciated that, but even more so I appreciated your endless desire to see the world know Christ. While I learned that yes, I could write a four-page paper in half an hour, I also learned that I didn’t enjoy being out of my comfort zone but sometimes I had to. I still remember Habakkuk 3:18-19, by the way. Thank you.

Dear Dr. Lit,

That’s appropriate, isn’t it? I didn’t know what to expect, sitting in the back and wondering what this would be, but while I didn’t agree with everything, I did learn that theology involved lots of humor and the capacity for endless study. I also learned that I didn’t know theology half as well as I thought I did, and it was humbling in the best possible way. Thank you.

Dear Dr. Sauer,

I didn’t know the nickname for your class until I was almost done, but ‘love hour’ wasn’t wrong. I loved every minute. I didn’t know one person could have such unflagging energy for the Word, for life, and for love. You may not remember it or know it, but you were the very first professor in whose office I sat, and said a little, and cried a little, and you flipped through that big Bible on your desk and spoke the very verse that I had been praying for my sister over and over again and never praying for myself. Thank you.

Dear ABD,

I still think of that, and am still rooting for you, however long this journey takes. Thanks for still remembering my name. You recognized our failings as students and sought–even while busy and burdened in ways we never knew–to feed us more information than we could grasp but badly needed to know. I wish I could go back and understand better now what you taught us then. The coffee was delicious, too. Thank you.

Dear Dr. Mathews,

I never understood how you did it, how you managed to teach and preach and speak and steadily love the Lord and His Word and His Church and His work and His children in the same unflagging breaths. I know we were few and listless, but I still have those books sitting on my shelf, because what you had us read could not leave us untouched. You haven’t given up on the vision of work done well, and you resuscitated that vision for us, too. Thank you.

Dear Dr. McDuffee,

I’ve sat under you three times. I think you only remember the last two, but it was the first one that floored me. How do you think of the world with such breadth and with such humility? I finally saw White Cruficixion but it was only after visiting Chagall’s museum and being in tears because I was finally glimpsing a fraction of the way you see the world. I’ll admit that I did sudokus in class to keep my brain grounded to my hands, but I promise the hundreds of pages of notes were from those times when I was able to pin to the page those scraps of thought too vivid to leave alone. I thought you were profound; then I realized you were unforgettable. I had already wept in Yad Vashem, but you taught me that I could weep with both anger and gentleness. And then I wept in your office, and you were kind and still gentle. And you still remember, because somehow your mind can comprehend the full spectrum of color and not forget the specific hue of the people around you. Thank you.

Dear Mrs. Smith,

You were color and sound and always wore something sparkling and glittery. You were the pastor’s wife who never sugarcoated the work of it but never presented it as anything less than the richest gift. You wept in a moment and smiled in the next. You proclaimed conception a miracle and made it all make sense without it ever being made shameful. You gave me my only ‘B’ in 9 years of college. And then you sat across from me at a lunch table and said you could see me. And you sat across from me at a coffee shop and said you could see me again. And then you sat across from me on a plane and saw me again. And in those moments I saw you, a woman, who teaches with passion and loves with ferocity and gives both joy and tears their rightful place. Thank you.

Dear Dr. Weber,

I had heard about you before I sat in your class. So I wasn’t disappointed, and then I wasn’t disappointed again, and then I was surprised because I wasn’t disappointed again. You knew me because of where I sat and you gave us clarity because of who you are and you gave me a fair grade because you would never do anything less. Thank you.

Dear Dr. Peterman (Napoleon),

It only makes sense if you’ve seen it, but then it always makes sense. You were the first person to care about footnotes and margins and the period in exactly the right place. You meant ‘exactly,’ and I learned ‘exactly,’ and in between we were your guinea pigs and we turned out just fine. It seemed like too much reading and too many words and too much knowledge and suddenly it became pastoral because you could do no less. And when I was able to learn from you again, I knew both when to laugh this time and that you were capable of tears, too. And because I knew, I wasn’t afraid to ask, because you never caused us to be afraid of your answer. Thank you.

Dear MM,

I’m sorry I didn’t know how to appreciate you right away. You didn’t pretend that we were better than we were, and up until then I had pretended that I was. And then I was uncertain, and it led to certainty, but I was still uncertain how to bring new certainty to you. And instead you asked, and listened, and let me go with blessing and not complaint. And then I learned that you had taught us to appreciate you, in your own way. Thank you.

Dear Dr. de Rosset,

It feels pretentious to call you anything other than the real thing, but you were never anything remotely pretentious. You had just as many opinions as the next person, but more clarity and gravity in your words than the next fifty persons. And you laughed when it struck you as funny and cried when it wasn’t. You scribbled and marked out and brooked no excuses. You also savored words and named things as good without parsimony. And when I finally sat in your office, you walked straight to my soul, bypassing the masquerade of niceties along the way (and, coincidentally, my name). I treasure your praise, because you are unafraid to both withhold and extend it. Thank you.

Dear Dr. Koessler,

You may not remember that I spoke to you, twice. And the first time you said it was nice and well written and rather boring. And the words I had been so afraid to ask came tumbling out. You went next door to retrieve an awkward fistful of kleenex and gave them, gentleness, and wisdom all with the same generous hands. You had told us to ask what we dare not ask, and I did. And when I saw you again, you asked and were still gentle and I’m still not certain if I can tell what that meant to me in that season. I’m still asking. Thank you.

Dear Dr. Finkbeiner,

You were the nail in the coffin, as it were. Or perhaps the helium in the ballon. Or the instructor on the parachute jump. You made out both soaring and falling to be the greatest adventure of them all, and you scribbled out with pencil and paper those first instructions for how to begin. Then you stood against a wall with your hands in your pockets and asked bad questions and encouraged all manner of fumbling answers and loved theology all the while. And I still am realizing the places we jumped and the things we tasted and what richness you gave us in small, cheerful measure. Thank you.

Dear Mrs. Penfound,

I learned more about the grace of the Word than I did about fitness, I think. Your class meant a lot of pain, which I didn’t enjoy, but you gave a lot of grace, which I needed. You never said our goals were too lofty or silly or that we were not where we were supposed to be. You just did whatever you could to encourage us as who we are as people, people who could do better and people who you encouraged to do yet better still. Thank you.

Dear Coach,

You were pressed for time and persons and yet not pressed for grace. So you gave that to us, and the Lord used you to give us the gift of free time. And in the times you were with us, you didn’t mince words but didn’t withhold engagement. It was a relief and a gift and never a threat. Thank you.

Dear Coach,

I didn’t particularly want to be in your class, until you sat on the desk and took a call and made another one and exposed your love for life and sense of humor. I was reluctant and nervous and in pain most of the time, but even though you didn’t know, you encouraged us in the small ways with a cheer that made it all seem possible. Thank you.

Dear Dr. V.,

I got to know you at your best, didn’t I? Around a table in a little classroom, on the floor around a little living room, on couches in front of Indiana Jones. You said Sys Theo wasn’t your forte, but then you dove into the Greek of the thing with more elan than I had ever approached a language. And the language spoke to the theology, and Biblical theology and Systematic theology settled alongside and within one another better than I had seen before. And you remembered and asked and had a settled, unabashed honesty that stretched my spiritual muscles and helped to heal them, too. Thank you.

Dear Dr. Neely,

I was sorry not to be in class with you, yet I was privileged to sit under you at all. There are moments of you that still strike me; an opening word at FBM that oriented both our day and our lives toward Christ, a sermon at a church in Edinburgh, a conversation around the kitchen table at the Lighthouse, clarity around a campfire. You’ve repeated these moments time and time again in always choosing to greet me. The most striking thoughtfulness is a word you perhaps don’t remember, when your kindness to say how proud you were of me was a ribbon of kindness in a day seamed with grief. Thank you.

Dear James,

You presented yourself with integrity before you ever knew how deeply it would matter. You kept your honesty and welcomed ours and never lost your sense of the absurd, even when you were late to the bus and even when you knew the spiraling troubles ahead. Meanwhile you sat back and crossed your arms and somehow taught us to keep our feet steady when the theology was unsettling. You were honest when you said every passage told us something of God, and you were honest when you didn’t have the answers. And in that restless summer, when all I wanted was answers, I wrestled with God and was finally honest with Him in the end. I left limping and loved anew. I just wish I had more time to learn from you. Thank you.

Dear Dr. Root,

Your knowledge managed to both intimidate and inspire at the same time. Every day was extraordinary and heady and gripping and it felt like we barely scratched the surface. I treasure these moments; a coffee break when you were surprised and blunt in ways you didn’t know I needed; a quiet afternoon in a field when I fell in love with Alice in Wonderland again; a day traipsing in Oxford when you made a doctorate seem like the most ordinary and possible dream in the world; an evening watching and thinking and learning of redemption yet again. I learned to love the Word and its enduring treasures, while you were full of the life of the Word and its enduring transformation. Thank you.

Dear Dr. Goodrich,

I wonder why you never told us quite how difficult it was. Because you taught so steadily, as if was the most delightful and steadfast thing in the world. And it didn’t matter if we were sleeping or staid, because you pressed on and distilled years of study into minutes of teaching. I feel like I skimmed the surface in everything I learned, but I realized that the waters were far deeper than I first thought. I need to learn to swim, and learn to love it, but you helped us begin. Thank you.

Dear Dr. Merchant,

You entrusted us with hefty papers and loaded assignments, and I loved the chance to hear and exchange and begin to see the hands and feet of theology in new and unexpected ways. But what I needed most to hear was that early day, when you confessed and proclaimed that ours was a God of active redemption. In a semester of regret, I needed to know that He was still drawing us up from the deepest places we have wandered. Thank you.

Dear Dr. Schmutzer,

How did you know to ask that first question? To ask if there was something else behind that door that I didn’t want to open? You weren’t afraid to pull boxes off the shelf and name their contents, and in a year when nothing was in order, you spoke truthfully of even the most difficult things. I still feel as if I don’t know and have barely begun to understand, but even when I was uncertain and stumbling for words, you listened and still asked. You were careful with this hurt because you know the Healer so well. Thank you.

Dear Dr. Hong,

I’ve said it before, but I was continually astounded by you. You were tireless beyond comprehension, enthusiastic beyond measure, and prayerful beyond sight. There is much I didn’t say, but what I did you were always careful with in your own way. I didn’t know how bitter I was towards music until I learned to love it again and realized I’d forgotten what it tasted like to sing with both joy and tears in my throat. And you never condemned when my body failed and never ceased to call us higher when we could go yet farther. Thank you.

Dear Dr. C.,

I think of you in terms of honesty, except that your honesty is never unkind. So thank you for your kindness towards those I love, your kindness towards those I don’t yet love, your kindness towards me. I wanted to say thank you first when I realized the way you were gentle and honest in all the ways I couldn’t be, and then you willingly turned towards me with that same grace. Thank you.

Dear Dr. J.,

I have no words to say what you mean to me and what you have taught me. You are my brother and my friend and my teacher and it is forever my privilege to call you so. Thank you.

2018 Books: Jan-Mar

This year I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading already, trying to set a pattern of reading fiction every day in some form. As usual, there’s no goal involved (although this pace is tempting me to try for 100 books this year. If I find that goal impossible in December, maybe I’ll start raiding the juvenile fiction section again?). With the rate this list is growing, it’ll be an enormously long post if I don’t break it up. So here is the year so far:

January

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo

Arabella by Georgette Heyer

Devil’s Cub by Georgette Heyer

The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer

These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer

Dear Mr. Knightley by Katherine Reay

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling

February

Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge

The Archived by Victoria Schwab

The Unbound by Victoria Schwab

The Girl Who Stayed by Tanya Anne Crosby

Silence by Shūsaku Endō

March

The 13 Clocks by James Thurber

Whose Body by Dorothy L. Sayers

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers

Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers

Make Me by Lee Child*

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers

King’s Cage by Victoria Aveyard

The Heart Forger by Rin Chupeco

For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund

Per the rules, an asterisk is a re-read and nothing on this list is explicitly recommended (although many of these could be). I forgot how thrilling YA fiction can be, at the same time that I miss the rich literary presence of the classics. So I read and read and read again. If you’re curious about one of these entries, please ask!

Thou hast made me

Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?
Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste,
I run to death, and death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday;
I dare not move my dim eyes any way,
Despair behind, and death before doth cast
Such terror, and my feebled flesh doth waste
By sin in it, which it towards hell doth weigh.
Only thou art above, and when towards thee
By thy leave I can look, I rise again;
But our old subtle foe so tempteth me,
That not one hour I can myself sustain;
Thy grace may wing me to prevent his art,
And thou like adamant draw mine iron heart.

“Holy Sonnets: Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?” by John Donne

I Come to the Garden

I can name so few flowers. This is why
I’m not a better poet. Shakespeare knew
oxlip and gillyvor and eglantine,
while I, beyond camellia, violet, rose,
and lily, am reduced to saying, “There,
those crinkly yellow things!” Out on a walk
with mad John Clare, I’d learn a dozen names
for plants, and bless the wonders underfoot.
“More servants wait on man,” George Herbert said,
“than he’ll take notice of.” I know it’s true,
although I’ve never had observant eyes.
Would I care more if my heart’s soil were deep
enough for herbs and loves to take firm root?
Mine is a gravel garden, where the rake
does all the cultivation I can take.

“I Come to the Garden” by Gail White

Published in First Things, April 2012

Still Life with Flowers in a Glass Vase by Jan Davidsz. de Heem, 1650-1683

The Testing Tree

“The Testing Tree” by Stanley Kunitz, 1905 – 2006

1

On my way home from school
up tribal Providence Hill
past the Academy ballpark
where I could never hope to play
I scuffed in the drainage ditch
among the sodden seethe of leaves
hunting for perfect stones
rolled out of glacial time
into my pitcher’s hand;
then sprinted lickety-
split on my magic Keds
from a crouching start,
scarcely touching the ground
with my flying skin
as I poured it on
for the prize of the mastery
over that stretch of road,
with no one no where to deny
when I flung myself down
that on the given course
I was the world’s fastest human.

2

Around the bend
that tried to loop me home
dawdling came natural
across a nettled field
riddled with rabbit-life
where the bees sank sugar-wells
in the trunks of the maples
and a stringy old lilac
more than two stories tall
blazing with mildew
remembered a door in the
long teeth of the woods.
All of it happened slow:
brushing the stickseed off,
wading through jewelweed
strangled by angel’s hair,
spotting the print of the deer
and the red fox’s scats.
Once I owned the key
to an umbrageous trail
thickened with mosses
where flickering presences
gave me right of passage
as I followed in the steps
of straight-backed Massassoit
soundlessly heel-and-toe
practicing my Indian walk.

3

Past the abandoned quarry
where the pale sun bobbed
in the sump of the granite,
past copperhead ledge,
where the ferns gave foothold,
I walked, deliberate,
on to the clearing,
with the stones in my pocket
changing to oracles
and my coiled ear tuned
to the slightest leaf-stir.
I had kept my appointment.
There I stood in the shadow,
at fifty measured paces,
of the inexhaustible oak,
tyrant and target,
Jehovah of acorns,
watchtower of the thunders,
that locked King Philip’s War
in its annulated core
under the cut of my name.
Father wherever you are
I have only three throws
bless my good right arm.
In the haze of afternoon,
while the air flowed saffron,
I played my game for keeps–
for love, for poetry,
and for eternal life–
after the trials of summer.

4

In the recurring dream
my mother stands
in her bridal gown
under the burning lilac,
with Bernard Shaw and Bertie
Russell kissing her hands;
the house behind her is in ruins;
she is wearing an owl’s face
and makes barking noises.
Her minatory finger points.
I pass through the cardboard doorway
askew in the field
and peer down a well
where an albino walrus huffs.
He has the gentlest eyes.
If the dirt keeps sifting in,
staining the water yellow,
why should I be blamed?
Never try to explain.
That single Model A
sputtering up the grade
unfurled a highway behind
where the tanks maneuver,
revolving their turrets.
In a murderous time
the heart breaks and breaks
and lives by breaking.
It is necessary to go
through dark and deeper dark
and not to turn.
I am looking for the trail.
Where is my testing-tree?
Give me back my stones!