O come, O come

I’ve been keeping very busy traveling back and forth from various places, mostly all over the states from here to Virginia and back, for family things: weddings, funerals, holidays, and the occasional fine craft beer tasting with cousins-in-law. And the semester, which ends next week. And writing and editing. You get the idea.

That said, through the wonders of modern technology we can now do such things without wildly disrupting our work, and so, I’ve been working busily. The latest bit – co-authored with my good friend and colleague, Rob – was published in the Globe & Mail yesterday: Not their parents’ conservatism.

What I’ve learned this semester about teaching, and writing, and myself, is manifold. For instance, I do have a breaking point, and my eyes are bigger than my proverbial stomach: I often, as Linford Detweiler put it, grab this life and wring its neck with joy, but sometimes it turns around and fights back. Also, I revert into my college-era unhealthy habits when I am stressed out, eating poorly or forgetting altogether, not exercising, sleeping a little here and there.

Also, Bach is very helpful for concentration.

Also, there’s a reason we were created for community.

Last week I accepted an offer (with support of my department) to teach a class at NYCAMS next semester as an adjunct, as my course load at King’s will be four sections of a class I’ve taught twice already and therefore (hopefully manageable). It’s a departure from teaching writing, which is mostly a workshop-based endeavor. The class is a history of Christianity and the visual arts, and I’m still sorting out what exactly I’ll teach but it will be something in the crossroads between philosophical theology and aesthetics, read against (mostly Western) art history. It is in fact what I dwell in and work with and think about, but it’s the first time I’ve put it together in a formal way. I’m nerdily excited. But wow, the spring semester is coming fast, isn’t it?

That all said, Advent is here. The new church calendar started on Sunday. Though it wasn’t actually acknowledged where I was on Sunday, I still felt the newness of it, the anticipation. It’s no accident, I don’t think, that the darkness stretches wider and wider across the day until just about Christmas. So much to wait for. So much to yearn for, and anticipate. So much rejoicing to come.

On teaching poetry as a non-poet

Also, from a student today: “Well, poetry’s really like when you pour Coke into the glass, and fills in between the ice cubes. That’s the poetry.”

I’ve been taken aback by how much I’ve been soaking up poetry these last couple weeks as I prepared for class. I didn’t teach poetry in last year’s class – it is, after all, a nonfiction class – but, inspired by Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, I built two weeks’ worth into my syllabus and as it turned out, it hit right in the perfect time for both my students (who have been wearily slogging through midterms) and me. October was good, but not easy, and very wearying in body and soul and spirit in a way I don’t think I’ve ever experienced. In the past when I was weary, I shut down, but this month I’ve felt the exact opposite happening inside of me. I’m beginning to understand things I haven’t in a long time, if I ever did.

And so I’ve been inhaling poetry, more than anything else.

On Friday I went down to First Things to hear Christian Wiman – eminent poet and essayist and editor of Poetry magazine. He read some old work and new. I admit, shamefacedly, that I’m familiar with his name and reputation but not his actual poetry. It was a rather august crowd, including some King’s students (some mine!) and a colleague on the faculty as well as a number of other familiar faces – including, believe it or not, Mark Strand.

Wiman’s poetry is dark in a not hopeless way. There seemed to me to be a lot of spareness and trees in his work, probably something borne of his youth in far-west Texas. He found his way toward faith through poetry. His work seems like it’s a curtain between the eternal and me, fluttering and letting me see beyond it just a little, once in a while.

Later that night we were at the Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe, where about half my students and some of their friends and roommates piled into a corner for their Friday night slam, which was (at times literally) hopping. The poet who won is an NYU student and a pastor’s kid, something I wasn’t expecting and something I was glad of, for their sakes.

After these few weeks of teaching, experiencing, and observing poetry, I’ve been gratified to have several students approach me and say they want to start writing and maybe even performing their own work. Nothing could delight me more.

But I don’t write poetry. Sometimes I think  I could, but I’m not sure you can force that sort of thing, and I’ve chosen my genre for the next few years. And yet. And yet.

Getting in

The last couple weeks have been very roller-coaster-y: some excellent time in Hamilton and in the Cardus office for a bunch of work on Comment, then returning home to stacks of work and some very late nights.

Good things, though —

  • I got an incredibly exciting call when I was sitting late in my office trying to meet a deadline: I got into Seattle Pacific University MFA in creative nonfiction! I’ve deferred my acceptance to the fall term, which means I’ll start at the Glen West in August. I did a lot of research and soul-searching before deciding to apply to SPU because, frankly, it’s the best program out there: selective, rooted, low-residency but also very rigorous. And I’m so glad I got in.
  • Yesterday, my spring course load was rearranged, and now I have my ideal schedule, giving me freedom to schedule conference and Comment-related travel into my week when needed.
  • And I’ve caught wind of some exciting teaching opportunities in 2011.

Leaving shortly for my sister-in-law’s wedding in the Richmond, VA area. Relishing the idea of Monday, which starts my first full week in the office in a month.


It is cold, grey, rainy, and wet in New York, and because this is New York and not England, it feels as if it’s been this way forever, even though it’s only been a week, or maybe less. So we bundle up and drink coffee and other warming things and pray for autumn sunshine.

I just noticed that my piece on “little magazines” for the Center for Public Justice was broadcast on Dordt College’s radio station (and I recorded it myself, so if you’re itching to hear what I sound like, now’s your chance). You can read it here or click next to it on this page to listen – though you’ll need Windows Media Player (grumble).

Also, have you read Lorrie Moore’s piece on the (objectively) best television show ever to hit the small screen, The Wire? (I haven’t, but it’s coming home with me tonight.)

Ask an academic about procrastination.

After class on Thursday I catch a plane in Newark bound for Toronto for almost a week of work on Comment mixed with visits with friends and many late nights of good conversation – balm for this weary soul.

And now it’s time for this academic to stop procrastinating and get back to work.

Friday morning

Two announcements:

  • My dear friend Jenni (who I have known from a distance for several years and am delighted to be rooming with at The Glen in a week or so) has been working very hard on the Art House America site – and it’s finished, as of last night. So go read, gawk at the loveliness, and enjoy.
  • I’m delighted to be the faculty advisor for the newest women’s house at King’s, named for Corrie ten Boom. (You can read the announcement here from last spring.) I know several of the girls from my class last year, and I am very excited to be joining them as they embark on their first year, and to be able to engage in student life at King’s in my first year.

Things I am pondering:

  • The perennial question: M.F.A. or Ph.D., or both, and in which order? Do I need to study craft or history? Where, how, when? Do I need prerequisites? And how can I avoid paying for it? These things roll around in my head a lot, and they’ve come back lately in a kind of aggravated existential crisis. (What do you think?)
  • I asked this question of a number of teacher/writer friends in an email, but I’ll ask here, too: if you do both, how do you manage both? Do you schedule time for writing into your office time? Or is it haphazard?
  • Similarly, blogging friends: do you find that blogging takes away from or enhances your writing time? I used to say that blogging was exercising the writing muscle. Then I stopped blogging. And I think maybe I was right, but it’s hard to start again.
  • Jim Belcher’s book Deep Church, which, besides being incredibly engaging, compassionate, and reasoned, is also challenging, expanding, and clarifying my thinking in ways that few books have done of late (Jamie Smith‘s Desiring the Kingdom being one of those few). If you care about church and have been scurrying around the periphery of both relatively traditional evangelicalism and vaguely emergent churches for a while, like me, you can’t afford to skip this one. I promise: you haven’t read it before. And you’ll also enjoy it.
  • Speaking of Desiring the Kingdom, I’m struggling with how to develop thick practices in my students through teaching. I’m already committed to not setting deadlines for big assignments for Sunday night or Monday morning, because I know students, and many will not make Sunday into a day of rest if they know a project is due. I don’t want to teach them that behavior – it will burn them out. I’ve been there. I know. And I also plan to focus on Sabbath the week we also focus on poetry and description in my first-semester writing class this fall. But what else? I’m thinking about, for instance, Andi’s article on shelter and my own new (even if shared) office.

You know, just an average Friday morning.

On Teaching and Other Things

Dove straight back into real life after returning – Tom started his new job on Monday, and I feel like I’ve been climbing an endless mountain of to-dos. I can’t believe tomorrow’s Thursday already!

Sometimes life seems settled, and I know roughly what to do next and have a manageable list of things to accomplish. Other times it is crazy. Inevitably the craziness hits when I want to be reading books and spending time outdoors and planning for the months ahead. But today I agreed to a position of some influence on the lives of some students, which I am terribly excited to announce soon, and that makes me realize anew how blessed I am in the work I do, or rather the work I fell into quite unexpectedly.

My friend Allison’s piece on growing into a teaching vocation reminded me today that teaching comes naturally to no one, that it’s something we learn. Some get to learn it from great classroom teachers. I didn’t have many of those before I began teaching (a couple great professors in college and one in grad school excepted), but her observation is heartening:

Often we see vocation as something to claim, not something to grow into. We do this, I think, because vocation identifies us, not only to the world, but to ourselves; carrying a label wards off fear, insecurity and mystery. And we label ourselves as “masters,” our insecurities hidden, the future predictable and bright.

A true leap of faith.


One small note: this Sunday, our dear, dear friend Angela is getting married to the very best of Peters at the New York Botanical Garden, something we’ve been very much looking forward to since we, well, met Peter on New Year’s Day this year. Tom will also be taking a few photos, not as the primary photographer but filling in a few gaps, and I’ll be playing the piano for two congregational hymns. (And we’re very much looking forward to dim sum the day before.)

Oh, Fridays

I asked my students to write the “most surprising thing they’ve learned about writing this semester” on their weekly notecards this week. Many of them wrote of how they thought they were a good writer until they took the class and discovered all the things they were never taught before; others wrote that they never thought of writing as something they liked doing until they took the class. (Both of those comments are immensely satisfying, as a teacher.)

But my favorite (excerpt) was:

Semicolons save lives.

The students who sit in the back row also drew hearts on theirs in pink highlighter. I don’t know whether to be amused or disturbed. I choose the former.


Each Friday, at the end of class, my students write down a question or two on a notecard and give it to me. It helps them ask questions they may not have wanted to ask in front of the class, or that may not have come up in class.

If they don’t have anything to ask, I tell them to write down something, anything, for me to read.

This is my favorite from last Friday, verbatim:

Did you know . . .

When holding a wallabee you have to tuck your thumbs in or they’ll get bit off