What’s next for Penelope?

I’ve been blogging at this site since December 2011. I started the blog so that I could review a couple of books that I wanted to receive for free. Since then, I’ve written about topics as serious as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and as frivolous as my hypothetical Roller Derby name. I’ve told numerous embarrassing stories about cooking mishaps and breaking things. I’ve reviewed movies and albums, shared a couple of fan fiction stories, and hijacked the blog for a couple of months as a promotional platform for my self-published novel. I once seriously considered and made some steps toward re-branding this into a “Hufflepuff leadership” blog. (I still think someone should do that.) I’ve written about my job, my faith, and lately, my marriage. And I have nine partial drafts in my queue, including a “zany” travel mishap story that turned out to be boring when I wrote it down and a post tentatively called “what Ross Geller has in common with almost every Jimmy Stewart character (and me?).” (This one was doomed from the start.)

I realize that if I kept pressing forward for another year and a half, I could celebrate the tenth anniversary of this blog. But I think it’s time for me to end this long chapter in my writing life. I’ll keep the WordPress account in case I want to write a special post now and then, but these will likely be rare. Writing will always be one of my primary means of processing my thoughts and feelings, but not all of that writing needs to be shared with a readership.

Speaking of you, my readers–I know I’ve always had a small following, but you’ve been incredibly faithful. Some of you left long, frequent comments on my posts; others read the blog quietly for months, maybe years, before dropping into a face-to-face conversation the fact that you were reading it–always a delightful surprise. Thank you for paying attention.

I’ve thought for a while that it would be fun to have a podcast or a YouTube channel (actually, I have a great channel idea that I’m trying to convince my husband to help me with), but I don’t think I’ll jump into anything like that anytime soon. I’m thankful for the years I’ve been able to share my thoughts with you, and I hope we can stay in touch by other methods. Now I’m going to go cry a little.

Jesus was busy.

Last week, I told you about Forest, an app that helps with productivity. I’ve been using it again this week, and it’s helping me a lot. I have quite the little forest going. Actually, it’s more of a meadow; I’m currently planting grass tufts instead of trees.

This week, I want to tell you about something infinitely more important than productivity: a quiet heart. I would like to quote at length from a book I am rereading, A Praying Life by Paul E. Miller. Here is what Miller says about the integrated nature of the praying life:

Many assume that the spiritual person is unruffled by life, unfazed by pressure. This idea that the spiritual person floats above life comes from the ancient world and, in particular, the Greek mind–although we see it strongly in the Eastern mind as well.

But even a cursory glance at Jesus’ life reveals a busy life. All the gospel writers notice Jesus’ busyness, although Mark in particular highlights it. At one point Jesus’ family tries to stage an intervention because he is so busy. “Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat. And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him,, for they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind'” (Mark 3:20-21). Given the sacredness in the ancient world of eating together, Jesus’ life seems out of balance. But he loves people and has the power to help, so he has one interruption after another. If Jesus lived today, his cell phone would be ringing constantly.

The quest for a contemplative life can actually be self-absorbed, focused on my quiet and me. If we love people and have the power to help, then we are going to be busy. Learning to pray doesn’t offer us a less busy life: it offers us a less busy heart. In the midst of outer busyness we can develop an inner quiet. Because we are less hectic on the inside, we have a great capacity to love…and thus to be busy, which in turn drives us even more into a life of prayer. By spending time with our Father in prayer, we integrate our lives with his, with what he is doing in us. Our lives become more coherent. They feel calmer, more ordered, even in the midst of confusion and pressure.

Paul E. Miller, A Praying Life (NavPress, 2009)

I feel both a longing and a conviction when I read this. I deeply crave this life of inner quiet. But I recognize in myself the misguided pursuit of external calm. I can use all the focus apps I want do yoga in the middle of the afternoon but still feel frazzled and worried and bitter toward people who (as I see it) demand my attention. Quietness of soul is not about tools or resources, though those can help. Miller concludes his book with a section on prayer tools, and he acknowledges the importance of having a literally quiet place to pray (though he never says that’s the only appropriate environment for prayer). Quietness of soul, though, comes from acknowledging my need for the Lord from the outset—not waiting until my day is falling apart around me, but even when I wake up feeling pretty smart and together (which sometimes happens).

I’ll conclude with a quote from Emily P. Freeman that nicely sums up what Miller wrote and what I am contemplating these days. (This quote is from the show notes of an episode of her podcast, The Next Right Thing: https://emilypfreeman.com/podcast/the-next-right-thing/59/)

Just like any ordinary practice can be a spiritual discipline if it brings us into the presence of God, so can any ordinary place be a sanctuary if we will to see it so.

Cultivating quietness in our lives is less about our stage of life and more about our state of mind. You can be busy and soulful at the same time. The key is in paying attention.

sounds like birds

Instead of trying to bang out a well-supported thesis-driven argument in half an hour like I normally do (it’s hard, by the way), today I’m going to write a not quite stream-of-consciousness, loosely poetic series of observations. Let’s see how it goes.

One good thing about having the windows open in the house is that I can hear the high, one-note call of the red-winged blackbird currently enjoying our bird feeder. I don’t remember seeing these birds until I moved to the Midwest, and I am still startled when I’m looking at a drab roadside field or that patch of wilderness behind our neighbor’s house and I see that yellow-outlined dab of red on a shiny black wing.

Another good thing about having the windows open is that when I’m listening to my record of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “The Lark Ascending” in the middle of the afternoon, I can share it with my neighbors if they choose to listen. I’m not sure if the little girls giggling on the trampoline in the other neighbors’ backyard really care, but as I’m sitting cross-legged on our bedroom floor doing yoga and enjoying the record, I can imagine one of the girls whispering, “That sounds pretty.”

One good thing about taking a walk toward sunset is that we might hear a mourning dove coo and then look up at our neighbor’s roof and see it outlined against the glowing clouds. The mourning dove’s song is the earliest bird call I can remember recognizing and, I’ll be honest, still one of the only ones I can actually recognize. The sound takes me back to a summer night in my childhood home, where through my open window I might hear a mourning dove or I might hear my dad listening to a baseball game out on the deck.

One good thing about birds is that they remind me to pray. Today I learned about prayer triggers, sounds that remind us to stop for a moment and talk with God. Some people, apparently, pray whenever they hear a siren. I get it, but I don’t want to associate prayer with panic. So I wrote in my journal that whenever I see a bird at our feeder, I will try to remember to pray. There are two reasons for this. One is that ever since we put up this new feeder last week, birds have been flocking to it consistently. So, they will help me to pray without ceasing. The other reason is that Jesus once said, “Look at the birds.” He was teaching his disciples not to worry. He asked them to think about how the Father makes sure the birds get fed–even the ones that don’t live near a well-stocked platform feeder–and how much more precious each of them, the disciples, was in the Father’s eyes. So when my eye is on a sparrow–or when I hear a blackbird sing–I will think about how God watches me.

Another time, Jesus said to his disciples, “Fear not, little flock.” I always picture a flock of sheep there because of that automatic association most of us make between the Bible and sheep, but I don’t know, maybe Jesus was thinking of a flock of purple finches too. One good thing about birds is that they’re always handy for a metaphor.

marriage observations from a non-expert

Remember a couple years back when I kept talking about re-branding this blog into a Hufflepuff leadership blog? (If you think this idea sounds strange–I agree–and want to know more, check out this post and others throughout spring 2018.) This never happened because I ended up leaving my job for a regular classroom faculty post, and thus organizational leadership no longer formed a major part of my reading and thinking. I bring this up because I’ve noticed that for the past few months, I’ve been posting fairly regularly about marriage, and I imagine this will only become more frequent now that I’m actually married. Even though I do not plan to leave my marriage like I left my job, I probably will not re-brand Penelope Clearwater into a marriage blog–Hogwarts-themed or otherwise. One, there are too many marriage opinions out there, and two, I like the freedom to be able to write about whatever the heck I want to. (I am currently mulling a post about Ross Geller, Jimmy Stewart, and the enneagram.) Just know that I will probably be posting about marriage fairly often, at least for a little while.

And sometimes my marriage posts will be fairly sappy. Today, I basically just want to tell you how great my husband is. See, I’m having one of those days that might be funny on a sitcom but in real life is mostly sad. The day began with a large portion of the built-in shelving in our closet breaking and crashing to the floor because it was overloaded with my clothing. Then, this afternoon, while trying to start the process of getting my last name changed on my Social Security card, I fell for a scam that, though relatively benign, cost me $40 for basically nothing. (Ironically, I was just “teaching” my online students this morning about how to evaluate a website for credibility.) It’s one of those days when I feel like quoting Charlie Brown after he puts an ornament on his sad little Christmas tree and it droops to the ground: “Oh, everything I touch gets ruined!” It also doesn’t help that I’m reading a novel about a man who gets Alzheimer’s disease at a fairly early age; I keep thinking I notice his symptoms in myself. I have cried at least twice today, and I have tried to shoddily cover up my embarrassment (about how much clothing I own and how I could be so stupid as to fall for an obvious internet scam) by alternately over-apologizing and blaming my husband for making me feel bad about myself. It’s been ugly.

Here’s what my husband did, though. He hugged me. He calmly helped me pick the clothes up off the floor. He told me a story about how he recently almost fell for an internet scam. He kept walking back into the room where I was working to tell me that I wasn’t stupid and that he loved me. He did this so often that it kind of got annoying, actually–I mean, I was trying to reply to emails! But if given the choice, I’ll always pick being annoyed by too much love over wondering whether my husband is mad at me and thinks I’m dumb. Always.

special guest next week: send me your questions!

Hi everyone! Next week, I’m going to have a special guest on my blog: my fiance, Jordan Martinus, a magnetics design engineer who enjoys playing role-playing and board games, teaching kids at Bible Study Fellowship, and staying active with CrossFit and basketball. He also loves hanging out with me and participating in such pastimes as walking, cooking, and watching movies. What would you like to know about Jordan? Post your questions here, and we’ll tackle them in next week’s post!

what I’m doing this week: making risotto, being student-centered, and still planning a wedding

This post should not be read as me tooting my own horn (“you should be just like me”) but rather as me sharing some things that I’m doing that may or may not work for you–after all, you may have even better ideas. Also, it’s an aspirational post for me, too; I mean, this is only Monday, and even in a normal week, my best-laid plans can turn into a mess of arrows bumping tasks down to later in the week on my planner page (some of which tasks will fall off the page entirely). So, with all that in mind, here are three things that (you are free to do as you like) am planning to do this week.

  1. Making risotto. This morning, I bought ingredients to make one of my favorite dishes, risotto. I know that not everyone loves cooking, but for me, it’s relaxing and a way for me to use totally different skills than the ones I use in my work. Also, there’s sometimes a temptation, when we are housebound or just generally in stressful situations, to throw basic nutrition guidelines out the window, but I think it’s important for us to continue to be at least mindful of what we’re eating and feeding those we love. I’m not saying risotto is the pinnacle of healthy eating, but it certainly is filling and nourishing, and I’m adding peas and shrimp to mine (thanks for the idea, Betty Crocker) for some green and protein. So, again, I’m not telling you what to do, but perhaps you’d like to use some of your time at home to prepare something special in the kitchen–even if it’s just toast with your favorite nut butter.
  2. Being student-centered. My university, like most, has moved on-campus classes online for the next three weeks. There’s been a lot of talk in higher ed circles about the best way to ensure students are still getting both the rigor and the support of a traditional classroom setting. I’ve chosen to make things relatively easy for myself by using the same format–loosely based on a typical asynchronous* online course–for all three of my on-campus classes. But the really important thing, I think, is that I’m trying to be present for and supportive of my students–answering their emails promptly and encouragingly, commenting on their discussion boards here and there, etc. For me, one of the most crucial (and enjoyable) parts of teaching has always been letting my students know I’m a real person (hence the many times I “accidentally” display my desktop, which features a cute picture of me and my fiance, on the screen in the front of the classroom) and letting them know that I care about them as real people. This can be harder in an online environment, but it’s worth the effort, especially in times when students are facing even more anxiety than usual. So, if you’re looking for takeaways (again, it’s okay if you’re not), here are two: a. Keep doing your best work, even if it looks different than it did last week, and b. Make sure the people you care about know that you care.
  3. Still planning a wedding. So, speaking of my cute fiance…we are planning to get married on May 24. As of now, that’s far enough in the future that we may as well keep planning as if everything’s going forward as normal. When we get closer to the date, we may have to make some difficult decisions, just like couples with March wedding dates are having to make right now. (My heart goes out to them.) But today, I’m working on booking a salon so my bridesmaids and I can get our hair done, because right now, I’m still fully intending to have a wedding on May 24. The takeaway here is that we can’t know what the future is going to look like. We never can; this virus has simply highlighted that truth for us in a particularly poignant way. Not knowing the future is frightening, but acting like we know it usually only leads to despair. As Gandalf once said, “Even the very wise cannot see all ends…and that is an encouraging thought.”

*a fancy word that means “not conducted in real time”

one of my periodic existential crises

This afternoon, a colleague who edits a theological journal came to my office and invited me to contribute an article to an upcoming issue on theology and literature. He assured me that I wouldn’t need to write an entirely new piece but could update something I wrote, say, during my doctoral studies. Knowing my love for Harry Potter, he said that a piece on the series would be enthusiastically welcomed. I said I’d be happy to contribute, and the conversation left me feeling honored and excited.

Now, a few hours later, I’m feeling more worried than anything else, for two main reasons. One has to do with the fact that I produced the bulk of my academic writing before cloud storage existed, or at least before I was using it regularly. I have a few PhD. papers in my Dropbox, as well as my dissertation (which–shameless plug–you can read on ProQuest), but the only academic work I still have from my master’s and bachelor’s programs are my respective theses, which are also accessible through library databases. One might correctly argue that most of what I wrote during those first two degree programs is not worth resurrecting, but I can think of a few papers from those years that, with some revision, would fit well with the theme of the journal issue–such as the first paper I ever presented at a conference (in 2008, during my master’s program), which connected Dorothy Sayers’ analogy of the Trinity with the author-character relationship in the film Stranger Than Fiction. This paper, which actually made a lot of sense, exists now only as a line on my CV.

My other, bigger concern has to do with the imposter syndrome I regularly experience, which leads me to believe that I’ve lost the ability to write. I realize the irony of expressing this fear in a blog post, but I worry specifically that I’ve lost the ability to write academically. A few weeks ago, while organizing the files in my Dropbox, I made a folder called “things I’ve written,” and I was pleasantly surprised by the number of written and oral contributions I’ve been able to make in the almost five years since I finished my doctorate–a short reflective essay published in Collegial Exchange (a publication of the professional organization for women educators, Delta Kappa Gamma), two lectures given at meetings of the local creative writing group I belonged to in Virginia, a short story written for my current employer’s annual magazine. I’m proud of these, but not one of them was scholarly in nature. I did present at an academic conference last year, but even that paper was a humor-laced analysis of the character of Loki in the Marvel movies, skimpy on sources and not rigorous enough for publication in a journal.

So I’m nervous. I haven’t written anything truly scholarly since my dissertation. Perhaps I can comb through said dissertation for segments that I might be able to expand into a journal article, but the problem is that there’s no obvious connection to theology or faith in my dissertation. There’s kind of a sideways connection, which I mention in the introduction, but I’m not sure if it would make sense as an article outside the context of the full study.

Underneath this nervousness, though, I still have to admit I’m a little bit excited. This will give me an excuse to go back and read at least parts of my dissertation and see if I still think they’re good. I have a feeling that there’s something there that might work for this assignment. The ideas are vague and formless, but watching an idea take shape was always my favorite part of writing for school. I’m ready to get started.

what marriage is all about

You might have looked at my title, knowing that I’m not even married yet, and written me off as a person with a (very small) platform who’s presuming to lecture on things she knows nothing about. Before you tense up, let me put you at ease. All I’m offering today is a quote. I think it’s about all I have the creativity for today, after grocery shopping, emailing distraught students, and calling hotels to hold blocks of rooms for our wedding, a task that had me disproportionately stressed out for some reason. (And I didn’t even teach today, at least not in the formal classroom sense.) Plus, coming up with a blog topic every week is hard work, you guys. Normally, around this time of year, I have something to say about the Oscar nominations, but I haven’t even looked at those closely enough to say anything intelligent about them. Maybe next week.

So, for today, a quote. This is actually a secondary citation, which I typically discourage my college students from using. You’re supposed to go to the original source; it’s a (relatively minor) infraction of academic etiquette to cite the book where you found the quote instead of the book where it originally appears. But this isn’t a dissertation; it’s a blog, so there. Anyway, in my premarital counseling homework reading, I came across this lovely and fairly lengthy quote. I found it in Greg and Erin Smalley’s introductory chapter of Ready to Wed, but they’re quoting Tim and Kathy Keller’s book The Meaning of Marriage. (Note to put that one on our to-be-read list.)

When looking for a marriage partner, each much be able to look inside the other and see what God is doing, and be excited about being part of the process of liberating the emerging “new you.” … This is by no means a naive, romanticized approach–rather it is brutally realistic. In this view of marriage, each person says to the other, “I see all your flaws, imperfections, weaknesses, dependencies. But underneath them all I see growing the person God wants you to be.” … The goal is to see something absolutely ravishing that God is making of the beloved. You see even now flashes of glory. You want to help your spouse become the person God wants him or her to be. … What keeps the marriage going is your commitment to your spouse’s holiness.

This is true. I don’t know much about marriage yet. (I wish I could trade my nearly-useless knowledge of citation etiquette for something useful like marriage wisdom.) But I already know the Kellers’ description to be true. This is why, already, Jordan can point out (he always does it gently and rarely does it at all) an area for improvement in my life without me getting angry or hurt like I would if a stranger, or even perhaps a friend, said the same thing. And why I can do the same for him. This is why we can feel, and act, confident in one another’s presence–because we know that we have already accepted one another.

It is a faint glimpse of the acceptance we find in Christ. Over the past year, I’ve been thinking a lot about the story of the woman at the well in John 4. When she went back to her town to tell people she had met Jesus, she said, “Come, see a man who told me everything I had ever done.” She said this excitedly, like it was a selling point. Because for her, that may have been the best part of her conversation with Jesus: the fact that he knew everything about her–her sin, her social isolation, her confusion about spiritual matters–and still accepted her. He sat and talked with her, took her questions seriously, and after the initial mention, never brought up her sin again. Full knowledge, full acceptance.

Well, that is not the direction I thought this post might take when I started it. I’m actually sitting here crying right now. I hope this will encourage someone else, but if not, it did me. Thank you for reading this quote and my thoughts on it today.

Ebenezer and the Jordan

I promise I haven’t fallen off the face of the earth; I’ve just taken a break from my blog that lasted a little longer than I had planned. I am still figuring out how writing fits into my priorities during this busy, exciting year, but at present, I have no plans to put the blog on a longer-term hiatus.

Today, I want to share an observation that some of you might, rightly, find a little cheesy. All I can say in my defense is that I value symbolism because it helps me begin to grasp the abstract, something that does not come naturally to me.

Let me back up. A few years ago, I wrote a post about the Old Testament account of Ebenezer, the stone that the prophet Samuel set up to commemorate God’s leading of the Israelites. (I recently wrote a short story about this, which I hope to see in print soon–stay tuned.) The word “Ebenezer” is an important symbol for me; I have it engraved on a necklace, and I love its odd, archaic appearance in verse two of my favorite hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” If one can have a favorite biblical memorial stone, Ebenezer is mine.

But there are other memorial stones in scripture, and the speaker in a webinar I was listening to this past weekend reminded me of the memorial pile of stones (which doesn’t share a name with a Dickens character) that the children of Israel set up in the middle of the Jordan River after God miraculously allowed them to cross it on dry land. And then I thought about how God has led me to a Jordan of my own–my fiance, whose first name is Jordan. (I told you this would be cheesy.) When I moved out here to Michigan in August 2018, I was excited about my new job and ready for a reboot of my life, but the question remained in my mind–why Michigan, in particular? (No offense, by the way. Honestly, you can read here and here about how much I like Michigan.) And now I know why: so that I would be in the same eHarmony orbit as this wonderful man I’m going to marry in May.

Hither by God’s help I am come.

History ends with a wedding.

Close on the heels of my last exciting life event, the publication of my novel, I celebrated another, even more monumental milestone: engagement to my “real-life Sam,” whose name is actually Jordan. We are getting married in May. And I want to take a break from emails about wedding venues and cost breakdowns to share a thought that leaves me in awe every time I consider it.

I try to get across to my literature students the significance of why (almost?) all of Shakespeare’s comedies end with a wedding: because history as we know it ends with a wedding (Revelation 19:1-10). And that wedding is followed by a feast. I love the fact that the very act of getting married and celebrating our marriage symbolizes and proclaims God’s covenant of faithfulness to his people, his church—his bride, as he calls us.

I am trying to keep this in mind as we plan. Regardless of how classy the decorations look or how good the food, our wedding is going to be a picture of God’s love. I can hardly wait.