Essay

Words to Live By

By January 28, 2015 4 Comments

I very recently had a birthday, and as I move more and more solidly into middle age (despite my internal protestation that I can still—even if just barely—lay claim to being in my MID-forties), I also seem to be making inexorable progress towards sounding more and more like my mother.

Which is not a bad thing, actually.

My mother, who died over fifteen years ago when she herself was middle aged, did me the great service of modeling a life in which she didn’t apologize for saying what she meant. She did not suffer fools, but that’s not to say she was rude—in fact, she was deeply funny and very gracious. And her faith was the most important thing to her. But she didn’t mistake being a Christ-follower with being a mouse. That’s saying something given how often women are silenced by playing the “ungodly” card on them. Maybe because my mother’s faith was clearly in evidence to all who ever came in contact with her that’s what gave her the authority and the ability to speak the truth so fearlessly.

She had many pithy sayings, mind you, but today perhaps a couple will suffice. My mother was from that noble generation of women who were professional volunteers, keeping a myriad of organizations going by creativity and force of will. So she went to a lot of meetings. A lot. And worked with real people who were—like the people we all work with—awesome and annoying, talented and troublesome, responsible and feckless. As we move through the end of January and deeper into the new year—and probably the fading of all those resolutions to do better and be better—here, then, are a few Momily koans, philosophical phrases, if you will, to get you through.

1.  People have a lot of ideas.

This saying is endlessly handy. It is calming to repeat to yourself on occasions when your wing-nutted colleague offers that half-baked proposal. Again. Or when an over-eager church member decides that that book she just read means that the whole service would be super amazing as a puppet show. Or when a student thinks that missing an entire week of class would be a good life decision.

2.  You have to know what you’re working with.

Clearly related to #1, of course, but offers an important reminder (and one rooted in Reformed theology) that having realistic expectations about people and situations and resources is one key to happiness and contentment. Useful for chanting under your breath during budget meetings or when you receive that 17th email from students who haven’t read the syllabus.

3.  Look around and see what needs to be done.

The motto of my childhood. Even when we’d get a list of chores from my mother, we knew we weren’t finished until we had assessed what else might need doing. A good reminder that a good deal of our work lies in living in response to attentiveness.

4.  I don’t want you to have any doubts.

As pithy as she could be, my mother was deeply committed to making sure that people felt affirmed and valued. She never missed an opportunity to say “I love you,” and when we, her adolescent children, would roll our eyes, she’d always say “I don’t want you to have any doubts.” And all these years later, we don’t. A great gift.  Words matter–beyond the telling of them.

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.

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