A Lot of Eggs – Too Few Baskets

Today I learned I did not get the teaching job. I am thankful that the news was swift and so graciously delivered; the “deliverer,” a former pastor, could not have been more encouraging in the midst of telling me they’d chosen a more experienced candidate for the position.

Of course, I am disappointed, but when given the chance to consider my motives for wanting the job, I think it might be best that they passed me over; Someone Else may have Something Good in store that is out of my current comfort zone, and/or beyond my imagined good fortune. Already, the rejection has ignited within me a desire for Something More – and that can never be a bad thing.

Nevertheless, I do get bummed out when I think of all the eggs I’ve got – my passion for writing, my desire to continue to learn, this faint streak of excitement I feel when I think of teaching, my affection for reading and discussing great books with other interested people – and realize that there are very few baskets in this city where I could put them (one or all) given my life’s current parameters.

But since this is a Joyful blog (and because I continue to enjoy great popularity), the up side is my only option. Onward!

Her profession was words and she believed in them deeply. The articulation, interpretation, appreciation, and preservation of good words. Words could incite, soothe, destroy, exorcise, and redeem.
–from “The Odd Woman” by Gail Godwin

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Cashing In or Selling Out?

So, I have a job interview on Friday.

As a writer, I wouldn’t normally be so jazzed about having a real job – we creative types thrive on the freedom to do whatever we like, whenever we like – but recently I’ve been seeking a little more structure.

I’ve had to ask myself how much it really matters if I write and publish my first book right now, and if it might not be better to make a little real money to slip into the gigantic tu-tu clad piggy bank in Claire’s nursery (her college fund). I’ve had to consider what it might be like to lose my writing to motherhood, versus what it might be like to lose my writing to said “real job.” I’ve had to ask myself if losing my writing is really an option at all.

As I’ve pondered these things, I’ve found I am also increasingly open to surprising alternatives: that I might become a more productive, motivated writer in the snatches of time that may still exist; that I might mother more joyfully and revel in Claire’s day-to-days more fully; that it may actually be possible to be a creative writer while living a structured life. None of these scenarios allows me to lose writing, but gives it a fuller experience in which to soak.

For these reasons, I think it wise not to slam the door on this opportunity.  One never knows what might be at hand.

The job is at a Presbyterian Seminary.  For twenty hours a week, I would be a writing instructor for Master’s degree candidates, evaluating their papers, sermons, theses, etc.  I am of the faith but I’ve never really weighed that heavily into theology.  My belief, though sound, is, like the rest of me, creatively processed and expressed.  I’m a feeler.

But what I really like about the job is that it would give me the opportunity to keep learning – something I love – and that it might open a new window in my soul. More than that, this job would put me in the middle of a place that (I think) needs someone like me.  The Christian faith badly needs clear, compassionate communicators.  And then, there is the tugging at my sleeve: I’ve been entrusted with this writing gift; in order to be a good steward of it, I am less compelled to hunker down within myself and more compelled to share what I’ve learned for the benefit of others.

There is a good possibility the Seminary will not want me, and I say that not as a means of defense or false humility but because it’s true.  In that case,  I’ll take it as a sign and get to work on a new book project. There is a YES in every NO.

Wish me luck!

A Bump in the Road

On Sunday afternoon, my beloved father-in-law, Peter, suffered a major stroke. I have neither the poetics nor the mental capacity to write about this right now, but if I did, I would begin by using his dog, Charlotte, as an example – she is holding steady by the door, waiting for his return – and end with a word or two about who Pete is (an artist, a philosopher, a storyteller whose wit knows no equal) and why it is essential that he get better.

Peter is one of the most consistently faithful people I know. If you are the praying sort, please shout a word or two to God for him. My 8 year old cousin, Hardin, asked God to “fix him real good.” In other words, we seek complete restoration, will power, peace, progress, and a good night’s sleep for his loved ones.

For more information on Peter’s condition, go to www.caringbridge.org/visit/peterkintz

Thank you.

Claire.

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Three days before my pregnancy came to its welcome end, Andrew looked out our bathroom window and saw something of a wonder: seventeen robins pecking the ground, springing from branch to branch of our scrawny magnolia tree, zipping from one corner of our back yard to the other. Seven more could be seen from the window overlooking our front yard. These precious, red-breasted gifts were only on our property which made for a very bizarre, God-given, Magnolia-esque moment – heavy with symbolism at a time when I badly needed encouragement and promise.

The robin, of course, has always been a sign of spring’s arrival. But, as Andrew and I found out later that day, it is also traditionally thought to symbolize new birth, renewal and patience. By that time, I’d had just about enough of patience, but there was something phenomenal about having nature, itself, remind me of our little one’s assured arrival.

Claire came into the world on February 23rd at 9:56 am. She was, and is, perfect.

On the other side of delivery, I see all the more clearly how appropriate it was that so many robins had gathered in our yard in anticipation of Claire’s arrival; she signals a renewal that is not just physical – though the new baby smell is pretty intoxicating – but spiritual.

To hold a new baby – especially if it is yours – is something like having a tent revival take place in your heart. The patience I cultivated during pregnancy prepared me surprisingly well for the long sleepless nights I have lately been enduring, and there is no encounter – even in the most mundane sense – that does not have an edge of newness to it.

The past week has been a haze of visitors, free food, sleepless nights and diapers. Last night we discovered the power of the bouncy seat; today, because Claire refused to sleep all afternoon, I downloaded Sounds of the Womb, to which she immediately fell into a deep slumber. Due to all this joy and exhaustion, my blog postings will be sporadic for a while. I’ll do my best to keep writing, though.

In honor of Claire’s arrival, a poem about little girls and their fathers:

My Daughter’s Morning

by David Swanger from Wayne’s College of Beauty

My daughter’s morning streams
over me like a gang of butterflies
as I, sour-mouthed and not ready
for the accidents I expect

of my day, greet her early:
her sparkle is as the edge of new
ice on leafed pools, while I
am soggy, tepid; old toast.

Yet I am the first version
of later princes; for all my blear
and bluish jowl I am welcomed
as though the plastic bottle

I hold were a torch and
my robe not balding terry.
For her I bring the day; warm
milk, new diaper, escapades;

she lowers all bridges and
sings to me most beautifully
in her own language while
I fumble with safety pins.

I am not made young
by my daughter’s mornings;
I age relentlessly.

Yet I am made to marvel
at the durability of newness
and the beauty of my new one.

31

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Last week, I turned 31.  Age doesn’t bother me much, mainly because I still feel young and because I know I am loved.   I have found that this second, sappy-sounding factor goes a long way in securing youthfulness – and I’m not talking just about romantic love, but dog-love, friend-love, God-love, whatever sort of love comes around.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because of a birthday gift my husband gave me.  We went to dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, and when we sat down in the booth he brought out a fat stack of envelopes and put them on the table. APK is one of the funnest and/or most mischievous people I know; in the seven years we’ve been together, he’s taken me on scavenger hunts, stumped me with riddles that lead to great surprises and planned curiously creative Mega-Dates (a term he coined).

So – I was intrigued, but not surprised, to see a stack of envelopes in front of me on the dinner table.  There were thirty-one in all.  APK explained that instead of writing me a note in a birthday card, he’d decided that it would be more fun if he wrote down thirty-one things he admired about me on individual sheets of paper and sealed them in individual envelopes and let me open them one at a time.

This may be one of the best gifts I’ve ever gotten, and I still haven’t even opened all the envelopes.  Some of the messages APK wrote down for me are romantic, but not all of them.  Many of them are empowering compliments, compliments that remind me to rest and be who I am, or to write what I want to write, or to remember, simply, that I am loved.  I put the notes and envelopes in a box, and it’s like the box is filled with magic.  When I am tired or grumpy, or when I stop believing in myself, or when I wish someone were around to say something nice to me, I pull out the notes and my day is at least incrementally better, if not turned around completely.  I think I’m going to decorate my office with a few of them.

I wish everyone had a box like this; in fact, I think everyone should.  People don’t offer others sincere compliments often enough.

After my graduation from college I went on a road trip out West with two good friends, ML and CF.  Somewhere between Wenatchee, Washington and Redding, California, we started playing “The Compliment Game.”  The Compliment Game’s objective was to make everyone in the car feel great, to tell each person encouraging things we’d heard other individuals say about them, but that they’d never heard directly.

One friend might have told me how great CF’s witty sense of humor is, for example, or what a calming presence ML has in times of crisis, but the compliments never quite made it to the intended recipient.  For almost an hour, we connected the dots, making quick work of a long drive and forming one of the two-week trip’s more memorable moments.  I don’t even remember now what compliments were offered to me then, but I remember feeling totally surprised by them, as if I’d just opened a little envelope made out, especially, to me.

Giving people compliments can be a difficult thing to do, especially if the recipient isn’t someone you know well.  Doing so requires humility, a willingness to be somewhat vulnerable, and an intrinsic belief in one’s self.  But it’s also life-giving and can therefore be addictive – kind of like a service project that only requires you to be sincere.

The Pilgrimage (or, the Longest Blog Posting Ever)

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One gorgeous Sunday in Italy, Andrew and I decided to go to Assisi. We were drawn there because of our guidebook’s glowing remarks about it, but also because of its sacredness. St. Peter’s and the Vatican are of course known for their outward pronouncements of institutional faith, but Assisi, made famous by St. Francis and his Friars’ gentle, faithful reverence, exuded – so we had heard and read – a different, more personal brand of spirituality.

After spending the morning in Perugia, eating chocolate, we drove thirty kilometers to Assisi. From the Autostrade, we could see the town in the distance, and it looked like it had been blessed. The old buildings, sitting high on a hill, gleamed white in the sunlight. Mount Subasio, behind the town, was shrouded in a God-like cloud, the shadow of which lent Assisi even greater gravity and promise.

After taking the exit for St. Francis’ homestead, we found a free parking spot at what we thought was the edge of town, and hopped out of the car, eager for enlightenment. As we approached what we thought was a former Temple to Minerva (converted to a Temple to Mary), we noticed a throng of young people carrying large flags and rucksacks. There must have been at least two thousand of them, hanging out around the “temple,” and many of them looked as though they’d just woken up. It was about 2 pm.

Upon closer inspection, Andrew and I realized that this was not the Temple to Minerva/Mary, but a regular cathedral, so we began walking past the throng of shabby, rowdy youngsters and toward Assisi, still far in the distance. As we walked along, we began to notice that the throng was not limited to the piazza/cathedral, but that it was traveling with us – or we with it.

I began to feel a very bad mood creeping in. The teenagers, all of whom were Italian, smoking cigarettes, and talking loudly, were ruining my deeply spiritual experience.

Andrew, as is typical of him, had a much better attitude. “We’re part of a pilgrimage, Towles!” he said. “I’ve never been part of a pilgrimage!” An image of the cook — with the oozing sore on his leg — from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales sprung to mind. I grimaced. “I’m not into pilgrimages,” I said. We kept walking, passing vendors selling t-shirts (one said “Enjoy Cocaine” in Coca-Cola script) and massive flags emblazoned with Fidel Castro’s face. A boy who looked to be about fifteen marched alongside us, kicking a soccer ball up the street. As the road narrowed, the crowd with whom we were walking began to close in; the flags, many of which were rainbow-colored and displayed the word “PACE” (peace, in Italian) in block letters closed in on us, too.

This was no pilgrimage; it was a peace march, and we were the only Americans in the throng. I felt like a yuppie at Woodstock. The HippieItalianKids (HIK) were all wearing t-shirts denouncing weapons of mass destruction or protesting “Dal Molin,” a proposed American military base on Italian soil, and carrying the rainbow Pace/Cuban Castro flags.

After walking about eight kilometers with the throng, the road began to grow higher and more narrow. The marchers slowed, and then stopped completely. At this point, we were about two kilometers from Assisi’s gates; on the steep banks around us had been planted beautiful, dainty, pink roses. Andrew (no longer as chipper about our Great Pilgrimage) and I (almost in tears) were hemmed in at all sides; the crowd had grown to what must have been fifty thousand smoking, flag-carrying, loudly-chattering people. A young woman in front of us fainted. Around us wafted the distinctive smell of pot. In a moment of panic, I imagined us getting trampled at Assisi, the sweet Franciscan friars charged with finding our next-of-kin.

Around us, in an effort to get around the bottleneck, rowdy (high) teenagers began to climb the lovely rose-covered banks, trampling both the flowers (ripping some at the roots) and the Franciscan’s irrigation system. A few girls slid down the banks on their backsides, taking foliage with them, laughing mercilessly.

Once we finally (FINALLY) reached Assisi, I thought we could salvage our spiritual journey and break free of the crowd, but there were fifty thousand more “pilgrims” in St. Francis’ square, jabbering loudly in his cathedral (despite the Friars’ repeated requests for silence), playing hackey-sack in front of the church and laughing loudly in the crypt holding St. Francis’ tomb. Worst of all, outside the lower chapel, someone had organized a Bike-a-thon for PACE, and there were at least two hundred stationery bikes set up there; on the bikes were Italians decked out in spandex, participating in what looked like an American spin class, complete with thumping bass and a militant, barking instructor.

You know, I’m sure this all sounds very judgmental. And believe me, as I sat in St. Francis’ crypt praying that I would get out of Assisi without screaming at the top of my lungs at one (or all) of the HIKs, I also prayed I could find a way to appreciate them, and to believe they actually had a cause.

But that was the problem. The Italian kids, now wearing the PACE flags like Superman capes, weren’t serious. They were marching up to the gates of Assisi and trampling the Franciscan’s flowers and smoking pot outside St. Francis’ tomb because a friend of a friend said the peace march would be fun. They didn’t chant in protest of Dal Molin, or burn American flags, or sit, prayerfully, holding candles, for a peaceful solution to all the world’s heartache. They milled through the cathedral with passive, glazed expressions. They kicked around a hackey-sack and sang Italian love songs to some kid’s poorly played guitar.

I don’t think I have ever been so outraged – and not outraged for myself anymore, but for St. Francis and his Friars, and for all of the people who take, with dead seriousness, a place’s sacredness and the business of war protests.

After seeing all we could see in the midst of the PACE people, Andrew and I fled Assisi. On the way, to avoid the throng, we took an alternate road that cut through tilled fields now growing hazy in the setting sun. At last, it was quiet (except for the distant sound of pumping, spin-class-bass), and we could walk freely without stepping on any PACE flags.

In silence, I handed Andrew the last of our Perugina chocolate – the only thing that had saved me and Baby K. from expiring on the 10 mile trek – and sighed. When we reached our car, teenagers were piling into big, blue chartered buses covered in PACE flags, looking almost as tired and beleaguered as the two of us; acknowledging my own sore feet and back, I almost felt sorry for them.

Upon our return to the States, we would find that the march, as a whole, was composed of almost 200,000.

Prove It!

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend about the existence of God.  We never said it that way, as in: “Do you believe in God?” – but that’s what it was about.

We were discussing a recent research project in the news, from which scientists had discovered the part of the brain that collects memories, thereby explaining that eerie sensation of deja vu. In response, this friend – let’s just call him H – said he believed that science would eventually explain everything, and that all the myths and “hocus-pocus” we’d been taught by our parents would one day be laid to rest – proven, for once and for all, to be completely untrue.

He said that 95% of the members of the National Academy of Science are atheists, and that all the progressive, intellectual people he knows are moving that way, too – an all-out migration to the sensible world of unbelief. “People of faith should have to prove their positions,” he said, “the same way scientists have to prove hypotheses.”

This entire conversation I had with H totally depressed me. I haven’t been able to shake it. And not because I was suddenly moved to atheism, or because I wanted to damn anyone to hell, but because his own perspective was just as boxed in and immovable as those with whom he disagreed.

As a person of faith, I am constantly challenged to reconcile the world’s tangible and intangible inconsistencies.  Living in a culture no longer drawn to imagine and question the unknown would be like having a birthday surprise perpetually spoiled.  The opportunity to merge a progressive, thoughtful faith with science (or social responsibility, or any other secular point) is a gift. It is an impetus for forward thinking, expansion and enlightenment. It is an invitation to become more open-minded and all-encompassing than before, driving out mean and narrow preconceptions, lifting up a shout to the unknown with joy and trepidation – a salute to what we all know already: that we are not in control.

And while my faith might be strengthened by this grappling as another’s is challenged to the breaking point, how terrible to silence those conversations, to so limit the scope of the human spirit that it becomes something that can be read on a data chart.

I didn’t want to argue with H because I wasn’t in the mindset to respond thoughtfully.  He’d caught me off-guard, and our conversation wouldn’t have been productive.

But if I had responded, really responded, I would have turned to Annie Dillard, who wrote, “No; we have been as usual asking the wrong question. It does not matter a hoot what the mockingbird on the chimney is singing. The real and proper question is: Why is it beautiful? ”

How do you prove the existence of love? Or of mercy? Beyond the realm of science, what, exactly, can anyone prove?

When it comes to faith, my hope is for curiosity, for more probing with less vexation.  My hope is that we might have the bravery to sift through our world’s inconsistencies without shutting down; to wrestle with them, knowing we may never know the answers.

In time, with discernment, perhaps we can find ourselves on a place in the path that is marked less by fear than by wonder, with an ultimate respect for the unknown, and an appreciation for surprise.