As promised in my last blog, the guest blogger today is my dear friend and colleague Jane Zwart, who teaches in Calvin College’s English Department. During this past interim term, we taught a course together called Faith and Fiction: Stories That Preach. Today, Jane discusses some of our students’ work in coming to understand how literature gives us all “more to be faithful with.”
First, a word of thanks to Jennifer Holberg—not only for letting me borrow her spot on the Twelve, but also for the expert grace she brought to an endeavor she mentioned in her last post: team-teaching with me during Calvin College’s interim.
Two weeks ago, Jennifer wrote about our class, “Stories that Preach.” In particular, she wrote about a painting and a poem (Brueghel’s “The Fall of Icarus” and Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” respectively) that she brought to its first meeting. Via those artifacts, Jennifer began the interim by pointing up the sacred imperative of paying attention. She insisted that, unlike the bystanders indifferent to Icarus’s fall, we should let others’ failures be for us important—fighting our natural tendency to think it really matters only when we ourselves end up plummeting to the unyielding earth. Fighting, in other words, our natural tendency to make too little of any injuries but our own.
It is also true, of course, that we tend to make too little of other people’s successes. We are slow to champion the idea that someone else came up with. We often applaud our colleagues, even our siblings, halfheartedly. We are perhaps even stingier with joy than with grief.
To parry the stinginess in myself, then, I want to spend this post championing two artifacts from the last meeting of the interim Jennifer and I taught: the “hand-outs” from two student presentations .
Souvenir #1: The Paper Fortune-Teller
We used to call them cootie-catchers. If you didn’t, maybe you’re unfamiliar with the game, too, in which someone (and usually a fourth-grade girl) opens and closes the paper flower’s maw, lengthwise and crosswise, as she spells out the word or number you choose from those inscribed on its petals. A few rounds of this, and she will ask you to make one last choice and then will open a flap, revealing your fortune. In grade school, it was usually a boy’s name (thus, the threat of cooties).
Anyway. A group of students in “Stories that Preach” repurposed this plaything. As part of their presentation on autobiographies that preach (each had been assigned a memoir by a writer slated for this coming April’s Festival of Faith and Writing), they made thirty-some paper fortune-tellers for their classmates. Each one’s secret flaps opened to lines pulled from these memoirs. The one I happened on enclosed two sentences from Verlyn Klinkenborg’s The Rural Life: “Other seasons come abruptly but ask so little when they do. Winter is the only one that has to be learned.” Which struck me as a fortuitous enough truth, literally and otherwise.
I was most taken, though, with the artifact’s implicit premise—that is, the students’ intuition that the shrewdest lines in the several autobiographies they’d read had a fair chance at passing as divination, no matter whose lot this game made them. So I am beholden to these students. They reminded me how, after the fall, all human failures, important and otherwise, prove quietly alike. And what a family resemblance, given God’s image, all our joys bear.
Souvenir #2: The Newspaper Paper Crane
Okay, it wasn’t newspaper exactly. But it was the news, acquired from the internet and printed, then creased into an angular origami bird. The handful of students who folded this fleet of cranes suggested that each might double as a phoenix, the patent symbol of hope in one of the several YA novels they had read.
Whether you willfully mistake it for a phoenix, though, or call the crane a crane, these orizuri composed from bad news tender one reply to this question: how do we defy suffering with something more honest than platitude and less reckless than despair? All the students’ assigned books asked this question, and if some of those novels erred on the side of platitude and some shrugged in lieu of responding, nonetheless the wisdom of their readers heartens me. For these birds, forged from bad news, are lovely, but their loveliness does not snub the reality of famine or landmines, of hate crimes or civil wars—important failures, all.
True, a paper crane is no practicum in peacemaking or reconciliation or even bedside manner. But I am still grateful for the one that rests on my desk. I am grateful, as well, for the hands that made it because this souvenir is at once memento mori and memento surrexi. As such, this folded bird points me toward the rudiments from which I can sometimes summon a more generous grief or unstinting joy. It lends me, that is, the remembrance that mortality is a unanimous human failure. And resurrection is an entirely unsparing triumph.