For my fortieth birthday, I decided to gift myself with something I wasn’t sure was going to fit, I knew I couldn’t return, and that held no worldly value – professional or pragmatic – whatsoever.
I could have booked a day at the spa to stave off the increasing imprint of my mortality (literally), or committed to lunch with girlfriends to bemoaningly celebrate 40’s as the new 30’s. I could have treated myself to a leisurely walk about that endangered mercantile species otherwise known as a real bookstore, credit card and coffee cup in hand. Or I could have taken a trip to somewhere exotic, culturally informative, or historically meaningful. In a daring act, I could have even tried something momentous to mark the occasion: skydiving, perhaps, or mountain climbing. An item dropped in the bucket list or crossed off the self-schooling inventory of life.
But I didn’t.
Rather, to the audible gasps of postdoctoral students everywhere scraping for anything resembling teaching experience in a consumerist academic market, with the support and astute leadership of my amazing husband, I resigned my tenured position, declined further teaching elsewhere (at least for the moment), packed up our three small children, left the perfect situation and, arguably, the most beautiful place on earth to go … well … home.
It was hard not to detect the irony – or is it perhaps that great cosmic and comedic boomerang again? – while teaching Homer’s The Odyssey for what might have been the last time. As I packed our belongings to travel across the border ahead us from my current position in Santa Barbara, California to my hometown of London, Ontario, Canada, the inside joke from one Great Author through another to, alas, an unsuspecting teacher, was not lost on me.
Yes, like Odysseus the great wanderer, I have finally come home. To London, my Ithaca. For some reason when I stand beneath its rustling trees an electric endearment rushes up from the ground through my feet along my spine and tingles the roots of my hair. Like him, it’s been almost two decades since I left for college and rolled life-tossed seas. Like him, I finally left a perfect Phaeacian climate and arrived asleep, albeit on a small plane in the 21st century. Like him, after the fog was lifted from my life at the hand of a god, I could see the landscape clearly and hear this second calling over the din of all sorts of “suitors,” all sorts of things vying for me and my attention to God’s voice in my life. And in doing so, the assuaging of my nagging homesickness has indeed become sweetness to my soul.
We each have a deep love of place, in such way, shape or form, I think. We are a people of place. Even if it’s only when gazing at that postcard in our work cubicle. Or perhaps it doesn’t become clear until a spot is left and then revisited, as the great Romantic poet William Wordsworth wrote upon returning to the childhood haunts of his youth:
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
There was a time, between the moments when I pressed save on the entire finished manuscript of my conversion narrative and when I pressed send on my resignation letter from my tenured academic position, that remained suspended. Or rather, I remained suspended in it. Dangling over the abyss. Dark and unplumbed, and not sure of where I was headed. I had left one life but not as of yet started another. I had abandoned all that was familiar, praised, hard-earned, secure, “successful” for something that could only at best be defined as making me miserable when I did not do it.
While walking home from school as a child, Wordsworth referred to a fear of tipping into some sort of “abyss of idealism,” and so he dragged a stick along the picket fence all the way home to rattle himself back into “reality,” and thus keep himself from falling into such a rabbit hole, forever. But then again, Wordsworth claimed to have no need of a Redeemer by the time of his death. I think it no small coincidence that he had defaulted from poetry by then. Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Percy Bysshe Shelley would grieve this loss in his own sonnet to the disappearing Wordsworth. Perhaps, indeed, the world is too much with us.
But if I remain in the world but not of it, or put another way – with Christ – I can sail in and out of the abyss. I can sail up and over the mountain top. One is just the other turned upside down. But neither permanently confines me. On His wing, under His wing, I am home.
Madeleine L’Engle writes of receiving a publisher’s rejection of her novel on the morning of her fortieth birthday. She tells of how she covered her typewriter in a dramatic gesture of renunciation, and then walked around bawling. Suddenly she stopped. She realized that while she was sobbing, she was also working out a novel about failure. She decided then and there that regardless of whether she ever published another book, she would still go on writing, because “Success is pleasant; of course you want it; but it isn’t what makes you write.”
Strangely, when things seem most irrational and bleak, the gladness still pokes through. Maybe more perceptible precisely because of the irrationality and bleakness. How would we have the faith without the wound? Or, as Eavan Boland puts so beautifully in her poem about her daughter’s growing up, “If I defer the grief, I will diminish the gift.”
The trees in this newly revisited Forest City make me glad.
L’Engle sees and seizes this gladness, and then uses it to fuel her second calling (our first being to Christ, and then our second in discerning how we shall use our gifts to His glory without confusing them with the grace already bestowed freely upon us). As she, too, turns the number of years repeatedly spent in the wilderness and desert by God’s people, she writes:
“I’m glad I made this decision in the moment of failure. It’s easy to say you’re a writer when things are going well. When the decision is made in the abyss, then it is quite clear that it is not one’s own decision at all.”
Categorically, I guess, I did not make my decision to resign from tenure to spend more time writing and mothering from any kind of “overt” failure. There was no rejection letter, per se, nor dismissal, nor lack of “professional” options. Quite the opposite, in fact. But just like poverty takes many forms, so does failure. My “moment of failure” was that I did not know where I was going. I could not control my outcome, plan my next steps. For me, this posed a terrifying place from which to make a decision. Unknown territory. The culmination of the wilderness. For me, then, it became clear what was needed: an all the more important resurrection of faith.
When the stone gets too hard to roll from the tomb, I’ve learned, let the angels do it.
Though I am now “home” on this earth, in that I have returned to my roots to love on my unbelieving family at close range and invest in precious memories with cousins and aging parents, I am not sure where I am headed. Together, my husband and I have left the security of our previous livelihoods and prior community to follow what we prayerfully believe is God’s calling for us at this point in our lives. We hope for discernment, we trust in His provision. Not once in retrospect has it ever lacked, nor will it eternally. That is the great adventure here on earth, I think. To be already “home” in Christ, to know that ultimately all will be well, and yet to travel in our space and time into other forms of “home” through the glass darkly until we come out on the other side of the stillness, having learned how to really listen.
For me, this step into the unknown required me to follow God away from all that has defined me right down the last crumb of my being. For some of us, giving up mere coins would be far easier. What is the very last of you to give up to Him? What is the greatest offering you could put into the plate? Only you know. Well, only you and God know. And that’s the great, fun, terrifying, swallowing and spitting out whale of the secret. Of the mutual gift, not orchestrated or puppeteered but given freely on both sides, in devotion and appreciation. No answer is more noble or trite than another; each is relative to our own paucity or wealth of spirit. And to God’s perfect plan.
For me, at least, I came to realize that my final arrival of a lifelong dream of becoming a professor of literature needed to go in the plate. As did my writing. As did my mothering. Some offerings are removals, just as some are additions. Giving up my academic position would give me the time and focus on my family and my writing. These were not necessarily incongruent prongs of my being, nor impossible to do all together before, especially with such a supportive husband alongside me, but they became increasingly less conducive to being done all at the same time, with any reverence of discernment. There are various ways, of course, to render these parts of ourselves up. But I believe each one of us must discern God’s voice in how best to do that for oneself. Our seemingly restrictive realities in this physical plane such as time and energy can actually help pinpoint our best ways to praise the eternal One.
And so, for now, at this season in my life, I immerse myself into my God, my marriage, my young children, my words. Because I heard my need in His voice.
The eternal sparkles through the sifting of the “could have’s”, reflected in the mirrored offering plate. The why we have given must shine brightly in response to having been gifted beyond measure, first.
I found that those friends of mine who welcomed the unseen into the realm of their seen offered immediate understanding. Some are Christians, some are not. Most are artists of some kind or other; artistry can extend to a way of being, of living lovingly in this world. Many seem to have almost a spiritual affinity for the unmarked trail, armed only with True North.
Some, however, were not nearly as supportive, and a few far from amused. I received the usual scoldings, the shocked reprimands, that “what are you doing’s?!” and the “well now you’ve thrown all that away’s.” I understand the need to beat the stick on the wood to keep from falling into the abyss, instead of using it to write in the sand. But sometimes it seems such a loss to have to keep making certain the real is there, to knock it (down) instead of affirming it through creation and relationship. Through faith and love.
One dear friend responded to my life decision with kind surprise, “What a leap of faith!”
“It’s more like a leap with faith,” I heard myself answering.
Dr. Paul Willis, one of my esteemed colleagues during my recent visiting professorship at Westmont College, and the gifted Poet Laureate of Santa Barbara, prayed for my husband and me before we left our wonderful church in Montecito for our adventure in the Great White North. His words have stayed with me since, carrying me through the fatigue and frustrations of countless relocation tasks: proof that metaphor can save us. Paul spoke of Kent and I opening our umbrellas and travelling on God’s breath to new places; he asked God’s blessing on our endeavors and praised the sincerity of our hearts, for our Savior and for our family. I often return to that image of being carried by the Holy Ghost, through good and inclement weather, protected by onslaughts while lifted safely across puddles or oceans. I imagine myself a celestial Mary Poppins, travelling with ease and joy and confidence. With the complete and utter trust that I will get there. That we all will, in His great love and mercy.
Grateful and humbled by the surprise of the decisions that surface from within ourselves in response to His voice, I tend to hear more of the unseen now. This is a midlife crisis of opportunity, the awkward but at least authentic emptying of my soul’s pockets into the collection plate. Stepping out, I try to remember to always bring my umbrella. I like to think of it as bright red.