I wanted to take a moment before the blog proper today to direct your attention to this month’s issue of our host publication, Perspectives, and its tribute to my dear friend and colleague, the late Dale Brown. Many of you will know Dale from his work at Calvin College, both in the classroom and as the director of the Festival of Faith and Writing, and at King University, where he founded the Buechner Institute. I feel deeply privileged to have been able to share a few inadequate words about Dale’s incredible gifts as a teacher; I’m joined by far abler writers in Jim VandenBosch, Jane Zwart, Laura Hicks Hardy, and William Evertsberg. And one of Dale’s pieces is reprinted as well. Select “Perspectives Journal” in the upper right corner of your screen to be taken to the full issue. Dale has also been remembered in Books and Culture and in Relief Journal–and he continues to be missed beyond the telling of it.
As I was writing this week’s blog, one of my colleagues commended to me a piece she had recently heard read by one of our students at our department’s Calvin Writers Read event. Since winter appears to be on its way out (hooray!), I liked the idea of one last moment to celebrate at least one of the joys of winter. So I’m delighted to introduce Ansley Kelly. Ansley is a junior at Calvin College with a double major in Literature and Business. And a lovely, thoughtful young woman, too.
It was December, and I was home from Michigan on Christmas break. My fall semester had been exhausting–full of unpleasant adult things like break ups, and loneliness, and days that called for inordinate amounts of bravery. I had clumsily come to the finish line and found myself in bad need of a decisive sprint from the city.
Cities are hard places for me. I am seduced by the pursuit of more: more energy, more influence, more experience. But I don’t find much room for quiet thinking as lights, sirens, and hustle clamor for my attention, leaving very little room for tending to my own soul. Souls have quiet voices, I think, and I can’t be truly attentive to the Spirit in mine until I am tucked away between trees, where stars and moon-bright clouds are the only things asking for my attention. In fact, I am most aware of my Heavenly Father when I am somewhere so solitary that my prayers leak out in tender whispers, each one floating and falling on brushes of cold wind.
That December I really needed the quiet of whisper-prayers. I needed the safety of trees. I needed to heal in the woods that I spent my young years in, building forts, repelling down muddy banks, and boiling leak soup in salvaged pots. Even before I reached the border of Pennsylvania, while I was driving across the flats of Ohio, I was reaching for that season of life. As I sorted through mental files of memories, I kept coming back to one particular night with my siblings. I think I was in middle school at the time, and it was winter, maybe even Christmas break. I had spent the last hours of light in the back yard with Nathan and Bria, making tunnels in the snow banks, wrestling, and dragging powder coated sleds up the big hill. After dark, Bria went inside to warm up, and only Nathan and I were left outside. We were too tired to pull the sleds to the shed or to trudge back up the hill to the house, so we plopped down in that soft snow and laid on our backs in the tremendous quiet.
I remember that on that particular night, the stars were bright enough that if you looked at them for a long time without blinking, you could trick yourself into believing that you were falling right into the night sky. But as I tried to discern why the memory of that night was so powerful, I knew that it wasn’t about the stars. What made that night so special was that it was the first night that I absorbed the astounding silence of a winter woods. I was amazed by the stars, but I studied the silence. I noticed the power that snow has to stop every sound, noise-proof our chaotic world, and soothe ears that are tired of hearing anything but the breath of our own selves. That night, I internalized silence as something that provides an opportunity to unfold and take a defenseless inventory of all that has happened in our busy hearts and minds.
So as I drove along I-90, I clung to the peace of that night and vowed to find a solitary spot in the woods before I had to face school again. You see, all semester long, I had struggled to find safe, quiet places to unwrap all of my fear, loneliness, and disappointment. Not having that kind of space made me value it even more, and so after a few days at home, I ventured out for an evening hike. I left the house while the sky was still pink, but daylight doesn’t linger long in December, and soon enough, there was just a little twilight left to light the trail towards home. Picking my way over frozen puddles, and under snowy branches, I finally just stopped to hear the quiet. In that moment, I had the privilege of sending a whisper prayer in the cold, and I knew that my God and I were back in our meeting place; the last lingering moments of a cold day. It was a new memory of safety, and a reminder that we should never stop looking for places that allow us to unfold and to take inventory of all of the sharp things that we carry inside.
I think that these places are different for everyone, and part of growing up and moving around, and finding new homes is finding new people and places that we judge to be safe. We can’t afford to bail on our own needs for vulnerability. We have to find our woods early and often so that we don’t stop hearing our quiet souls and the tender spirit that takes residence within them.