Traveling Mercies

by melissakiefer

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 You are probably familiar with this quote by Hunter S. Thompson: “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a ride!’”
A few Sundays ago, I heard what I believe is the spiritual version of that journey to the grave. I know hymns. I know “It is Well with my Soul” which makes me cry and “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” which always reminds me of Wesley Fellowship and convicts my prone-to-wandering heart. But I did not know the hymn “Am I Soldier of the Cross”:
“Must I be carried to the skies in flowery beds of ease, while others fought to win the prize and sailed through bloody seas. Are there no foes for me to face? Must I not stem the flood? Is this vile world a friend to grace, to help me on to God?”
 “Oh goodness, life is kind of swell,” I think, sitting here in my comfort, my husband-is-finally-home-now bliss. I don’t have a deadline. I don’t have a full time job. I don’t have hundreds of research papers to grade. I don’t have to drive an hour to work every day. Instead, I love sitting on the stoop with my dog and coffee and book while watching the cars drive Highway 20 on their way to work. But I don’t want that kind of ease every day. I realize that I want to fight. If we don’t endure—then what do we have to talk about? More importantly, what do I have to write about? Fluff. Sugar. Cotton candy. It’s the reason I can’t always write and must wait to feel the pain and the process. Because my faith is built on a rock and not the sand of grainy half-slobbered cotton candy fluff.
Sugar. The stuff that rots. The reason for cavities. I went to the dentist and did not have any (probably because one of my OCD tendencies is to brush my teeth five times a day). What my new dentist did find, however: huge tonsils that need to be removed and an under bite that not only has cosmetically always bothered me but also is believed to be the reason for some of my ear and head problems which will undoubtedly get worse. On our calendar? A trip to see a surgeon in Chicago and then perhaps another opinion at Mayo Clinic. I have a jaw that needs to be broken—slid back and rearranged. So fitting. What I need physically is what I need spiritually and what I can feel God beginning to do. I have two options. I can be upset like I usually am. I can distance myself. I can be mad about a long recovery. I can lament over another body part that does not feel fearfully and wonderfully made. Or I can say, as I’ve been reading in Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts, “All is good; all is grace.” I can believe in His bizarre and perfect timing. And I do. I already know that God makes beauty out of ugly bruised knees and all the broken things.       
God also knew I needed a breaking-down of the complicated and chaotic mess I made of teaching. He knew I needed to re-learn what I lived backwards from the blessing of landing a teaching job before I had even graduated college and was thrown into delightful chaos. He knew this girl who would sit on the floor of her classroom until eight at night needed to be smacked in the head with some sense. She needed to learn how to be home-based instead of work-based. He knew I needed to be nudged along, taken by the hand and shown how to live, function, balance—needed to learn to see a day as an adventure and not an overwhelming lump of hours. I needed to learn how to be married, how to be an everyday wife whose heart is there even when she’s not necessarily home every day. I needed to find the strength and the joy that comes with the morning. He’s fixing my vision, too. He is slicing the cloudy cataracts of my perception until my eyes see light. And I know that this breaking and resetting and re-healing will make me into a healthier teacher, a more balanced being. If I’m ever a teacher again? I’ll be a better one by being rebuilt.
I am a substitute. Nothing is mine now. God knows I am so greedy–I can’t handle student hearts again. Not quite yet. I’m not allowed to take off the cast before the bone has fully mended. So I just trust. I trust the healing I can’t see going on beneath that hard encasement of plaster. The feeling is starting to come back, the numbness subsiding. I feel a hunger pang, strong after months of no appetite—this gnawing desire to go into every school and shake up learning. And it is all learning. Whether I substitute teach (and join in on) sixth grade pickle ball, high school Spanish, government, sociology, elementary music, sophomore health, or special education—it’s all learning. I find this simple joy in finally seeing what the human brain can do, something I so ironically had to leave behind in the beloved private Catholic 6.0 grade scale honor classes I taught in that Blue Ribbon school of absolute Excellence in order to see. I get to have an unbridled enthusiasm when four special needs kids understand fractions. Why? Because I finally understood fractions through helping them. Because I know what’s it like to be lost and then found. Because it’s a victory. Because we should celebrate fractions and synonyms and antonyms and homophones and the conjugation of Spanish verbs. I get to go back to my own ingrained, instinctive ideals of education before the years made me doubt myself. I have no planning to do and no control over where I go or what I teach, and it terrifies me. But with sweaty palms and uneven breath, I get to ask myself as I used to, “Did I put something good into this day? Did I help someone? Did I notice someone who might normally go unnoticed? Did they learn? Were they having fun? Was I? Did I let this lifesong sing?”    
Through subbing, I better understand my sixteen-year-old self, but I also look back at how ungrateful she could be. I find that most rural high school kids in Illinois feel that their schools suck. “Why would you move here? Why would you want to sub here?” they ask.  “We’re poor, can’t you see?” My favorite comments? “That’s just what it’s like here.” Sarcastically they say, “Welcome to (degradingly insert school name here).” But really? Their schools don’t suck. And I ashamedly look back and see that I was that girl too. I said those things. I thought those things. Subbing has taught me that I love minds. And hearts. And lives and souls. And waking up all of those. I love possibilities, hope. I am trying to open the cage in a place where they feel trapped. I even love people who are hard to love. Who am I? So different from whom I used to be. I am an educator who has become a better woman from quitting and leaving, from unclasping, unclenching. Palms open. Hands up. I am receiving the manna, the mystery, as daily bread and allowing it to nourish me.  
I found part of myself this weekend. We went home. We went home to Bradford pear trees, daffodils, pink dogwood, forsythia, bursting glory—uncontainable. Everything is memory. I sat up from my reclined position in the truck, suddenly awaked from my nap by the smell of home—air you want to drink. Josh had rolled down the windows. He was gazing at the strong, ancient southern Illinois trees and listening to the rhythm of oil wells and taking in the sight of a level landscape and all of that luscious green. And I knew the instant I woke up. I knew that three years ago in the middle of March in a field of green, beside a four-wheeler in the middle of a downpour of rain and grace and electric love, he asked me to turn around and was down on one knee. In northern Illinois, would I have remembered? Would I have tasted and savored that moment; would I have revisited ten years ago, too? Another rainstorm. Another springtime. Another green field. A love wild and new and daring and strong. 
Flashbacks. I grabbed for his hand more often while we were home this weekend. I stroked his hair, kissed his neck. Because that parking lot reminded me of us. And that road and that one. And that field, too. And that church. And that friend’s house. And that campfire. I felt the surprised relief of knowing that home actually does feel like home to me. Finally. Home does not change. But I had to. I laughed at the way he was always looking and looking, twisting his neck to look out the windows. Giddy, boyish, bright wide eyed, looking and looking. I looked, too, with new eyes at the familiar. And found the same kind of different beauty. He was more himself there, and I knew it. I cried later, back in the North, because I’m also attached to these hills. Can opposites—north and south—both house my heart? Can he find that same magnitude of joy with just me, the girl pulling the boat trailer and throwing miles between home and familiar and family and friends and us in the truck with a compass clearly pointing north? Yet his job is the reason we are here. Am I guilty for my good attitude or simply surprised by my peace in a new place? He’s more himself, but what am I? A woman who needs her husband to be himself more than she wants bookstores and coffee bars and art and sophistication. We went home to the bubbly enthusiasm of precious friends. Home to eager nephews with minnow buckets and fishing poles. We went home to Grandpa with a big so-glad-to-see-you grin and Grandma holding chocolate pie. Home to dreamsicle sunset. Home to late night kitchen talks with his mom about all of the important things. Home to his dad saying, “If you two ever have a daughter, she’ll be queen of my world. She’ll probably be queen of the whole world.” Family. Friends. Home.

We will be home for good someday in God’s bizarre and perfect time. I know this because I married a man who loves the South almost as much as he loves me. And although the world still feels bigger when I’m away from it and small when I’m back in it, God is working on my perception. Both here and there—I see light. Both here and there—God molds me, breaks me, and rearranges me. Both here and there—all is good, all is grace. And so is the journey in between.

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