Flatbread Crackers & Cheese

DSC00988One time last semester, life was falling in pieces, or at least I thought it was.  I really can’t remember why I was upset.  I just know that I was in my spot on the Dennison steps, legs dangling a few feet above the heads of students walking below.   Judy came along behind me, and speaking the universal code that is I wish I could help but really can’t, she gave me food.  Flatbread crackers, tomato sauce, and shredded cheese has been my thing ever since.

I work on deadlines.  I always have.  Pretty sure the over-achiever, ambitious timelines I set fall in rhythm with my own heartbeat.  Supposing this connection were true, it would explain why not meeting deadlines of any kind, include my own, sets my pulse racing.

Watching an idea larger than I can properly explain come together has been the achievement of my academic life.  Admittedly, there are things far more important.  Likewise, a few dozen mostly coherent pages doesn’t really count for anything truly “academic.”  While its stolen my life, interests, time, relationships, sleep, and is about to get away with my sanity, a thesis is an exercise, not book.  If I’m a lucky, a dozen people will actually read it, and half of them will be either paid to do so or share my bloodline.

And yet, it’s all I want tonight, because it still matters.  The sophomoric (literally, cause I was a sophomore) Thursday night stomachache of fear and tension and not actually being fully convinced of my ability to make my deadline is setting on with prodigious force.

I spent most of the day camping out in the CSS library, a location with the unique advantage of being unoccupied, large enough to pace, and far enough away from anything that matters to yell at my computer without disturbing anyone.  The introduction I wanted to complete on Thursday is finally written and the rewrite of Part I is at last underweight, but the gaps, unwritten conclusion, edits, and eight days I have until I need a complete draft rise on my shallow breaths.

I’ve never run a marathon before, but I’m pretty sure this is the intellectual equivalent, and I’m doing it on flatbread crackers and cheese.


Glimpses

20130221_193011 Some things, being so much worth celebrating, so much more than what you had been hoping for, and yet, so much a part of a much larger story, are near impossible to communicate.

Should a casual onlooker have dropped by my apartment on a recent morning, he or she would have noticed a few things.  Among them–three sets of shoes thrown about and a disorderly pile of clothes and books.  If Waldo had been hiding in the corner, he’d of never been found.  Yet, I remain a perpetually organizing, color-coding, stressed-when-a-room-is-cluttered neat freak.

All that’s to say, there is an inverse relationship between time I have to breathe each day and the cleanliness of my room.  Less time begets a a bigger mess.

The routine of the semester has comfortably set in and the predictions I made about how I would spend my time are proving to be accurate.  I recently met a paper deadline for a seminar class with about six hours of work, including all reading time.  By contrast, I’ll usually spend about six hours just preparing to do thesis writing every Saturday.

So with a skilled mental division of labor, I chose not to think about how this week’s Veritas Forum would upset my schedule.  Veritas seeks to engage the larger campus community with “life’s hardest questions” and the relevance of Jesus Christ to all of it.  Academics who lead the forums include pretty much all the vocal Christian intellectuals who you’d think would be into this kind of thing, the scholars who like to tell them that they are wrong, and the most popular professors on each campus that hosts an event.

I knew Veritas was going to be good.  The marketing team killed it, the topic was provoking (science and faith), the guest speaker a genius, and it all felt right.  Last year, 100 people turned out for the first-time event.  This year, I fully expected 120-150 students and  great discussion.

I showed up during the hour between final tech preparations and when people were expected to start arriving, just because I wanted some time to sit and pray in the room.

But it didn’t work.  People started coming—super early.  That never happens on a college campus.  By the time the forum was underweight, 225 students had piled into the largest lecture hall on campus.  It was standing room only.

veritasThey came from everywhere–grad students, humanities majors, science majors, social science majors, community members, and professors.  They came with questions and objections.  From my seat in the middle of the very back row of the stadium hall, I saw everything, and it was extraordinary.

During lecture, an open computer screen in front of me wasn’t on facebook.  The kid was googling something the speaker said.  He pulled out a notecard and wrote down his question for the Q & A.  Friends kept quiet, running commentaries with each other during the presentation.  A Buddhist student’s forum-related facebook status made me laugh out loud.  Afterward, the biggest complaint I heard was that people had a questions Prof. Hutchinson didn’t have time to answer.

Crowds discussed the lecture at a reception afterward, and for all I know the cupcakes multiplied, because, for the first time in my life, the good food at a campus event didn’t run out.

Toward the end of the night, Abraham ran up to me with a stack of survey cards.  It was so tall, I thought it included blank cards, but it didn’t.  The survey asked the faith you grew up with, the faith you have now, and the biggest question the forum made you think about.

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Survey cards.

Despite having barely started a paper due the next morning, I poured through all 180 surveys, amazed at the responses.  People from all kinds of faith backgrounds showed up, and, based on the questions they wrote down, they were walking away wondering about the most basic questions.  What is truth?  Where does it come from?  How and why would Christianity fit into it?  For a lot of people, it was personal.

Needless to say, I’ve never been so excited about data entry.  Follow-up plans are already underweight and buzz from the event is still in conversation.

I wish I could say more.  I wish I could explain how much this meant to me and how long I had waited for it to come together.  I wish I could explain how that one single night fits into a hundred more and why it all matters.

Instead, I just have a messy bedroom.


A few words

Fixed a widget to my desktop as a constant reminder to go back to writing.

Somewhere between (still) staring at the first two pages of chapter three and trying to force myself to focus, I made a declaration to that little crevasse of my heart that had somehow not given up on the possibility of one day working in academia.  Research after graduate school and the unspoken dream of book writing were simply never going to happen.  Ever.

Funny that my writing had never been so relevant to anyone as it was yesterday.

Late last night, sheltered away from Nemo’s wrath and tucked underneath every single blanket I own, a friend came in and sat on the edge of my bed.  I had just gotten warm, so I didn’t even sit up.  She proceeded to talk to me about her summer plans, applications, and all the other questions that don’t leave your mind when you’re in college and don’t know where you are going next. Eventually, she asked me a very serious and direct question about decision-making.

Sadly, I don’t actually remember the exact question, which might speak to poor listening skills, but I’m pretty sure I can’t remember it just because I was so overwhelmed with the answer.

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Nemo from the inside of Exley

I had recently spent many hours untangling books, blogs, histories, videos, lectures, conversations, and ideas on the topic of her inquiry.  The only thing I had to show for it were those two pathetic pages in front of me.  But last night, instead of being a lamentably short introduction, those two pages were the clearest, most concise answer to my friend’s question.

Instead of adding to a muddled mess of thoughts, they helped.

Now, it is not lost on me that the realization that my words could matter for something came after I had an opportunity to share them with someone.  Discussing ideas always makes the good ones better and the bad ones obvious, but it was because I had driven myself mad writing them all down that I could offer a thoughtful, coherent answer to my friend.

All to say, as far as motivation to keep writing and belief that I can actually finish this in 61 days goes, last night was good.


Downshift

Once in the eighth grade, I did all sixty-some problems in the accelerated geometry textbook for a lesson because I forgot to write down which numbers to do.  I didn’t have the phone number of anyone in the class, so the only logical option in my over-achieving brain was to spend several hours doing what was suppose to be a half hour/forty-five minute assignment.  It was the only way I could still get my five homework points.

Yesterday, I realized that academic classes are the single least important part of my life right now.  My family, work, thesis, and (gasp) even my social life are all much higher on my priority list.

No doubt this is a good thing.  On the one hand, it means that somewhere between middle school and today, I appropriately toned-down unnecessary academic intensity.  On the other hand, it just reflects new priorities.

I was peripherally cognizant of this when I signed up and fought my way into easy (but respectable) courses this semester.  A lecture-based history course focusing on an era that I’ve already studied extensively is not challenge, especially when it has less reading and writing in the entire semester than what I’d get in three weeks of CSS.  I took a seminar on Political Thought in Israel, because I realized that if I do, I get an extra line on my diploma saying that I’ve earned a certificate in International Relations (a very nice thing to just stumble across).  Given my mediocre understanding of current events in the Middle East, I was surprised by how quickly I could do the reading and still make meaningful conversational contributions to the class.

By default, everything can’t be important, because then nothing is.  But the day when academics don’t matter (relatively so)?  I suppose I always saw it coming, but I certainly never expected it actually arrive.


In the present

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWithin a four day window, I started a new job, start my final undergraduate semester, will “finish” a chapter of my thesis, and will travel to North Carolina to attend a seminar having nothing to do with any of three previous activities.

I said I’d go to the conference because I was invited in October.  I remember the distinct thought, “It’s the first weekend of the semester.  What could I possibly be missing out on?”  I now have no less than three places I need to be this Saturday afternoon.

Knowing that this week would be uncharacteristically busy, I remember thinking that the drive back to campus in the evenings would be long.  Instead, I find myself wanting the road to be longer and wishing I could script the thoughts that come when I drive.  They’re always the most eloquent.

When I drive home, ideas come out in organized phrases that get strung together and rearranged like they would on paper, and in them is the reason otherwise absent in the momentous chaos and excitement that characterize this last week.  Slipping into mechanized motion (not zoning out, I promise), it’s so much easier to shut off the processor and just be.  And rest.  And pray.

Funny thing is, I don’t even know what that road is called or which way it goes.  It’s just the way home.  This is a slightly embarrassing fact, and I probably ought to look it up in case I need to give somebody directions sometime.  But it all sortof speaks to the point.

To that end, I will cope with the new phone that wouldn’t activate, the possibility of not being able to port my number, and the fact that the library closed at 5pm with all my books in it.  In doing so, I’ll funnel this week’s emotion and stress away from tense joints and toward my fingertips, step away from WordPress and back to Word, and finish draft one of chapter two, tonight. 


Crowd Harmonies, Healing & Hope

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI hate it when the perfect words come out at the wrong time.  I never seem to have anything to take my notes down when the words come.

I have no idea how many hands passed over the ticket I took to this evening’s Night of Hope and Healing concert for Newtown other than to say it had to have been a lot. I got a facebook message an hour and half before the concert asking me if I was free.  I thought I’d just been invited to a fundraiser at a coffee shop.

Of course the timing was uncanny since I’d spent the last six hours in the library and was yet to interact with another human today, in addition to the much more important fact that the cryptic and thoroughly nondescript message indicated that it was some kind of memorial event.

We arrived an hour late and spent almost as much time looking for a parking spot as we did driving to Bridgeport.  As we walked out of the parking garage, I heard the traffic director yell at a guy the floor below that the lot was full and to send everyone else home.  Probably less than a dozen cars made it in after us.

Turns out that I mistaked coffeeshop acoustic guitars with Chris Tomlin, Mandesa, Laura Story, TobyMac, Casting Crowns, Louie Giglio, Max Lucado, and Stephen Curtis Chapman.  The truth is, I care very little about seeing these people live.  As far as the music, I’d just have well preferred to sit on my bed and looked out my massive windows with my ipod up a little too loud and quiet prayers falling out my fingertips.

But it really isn’t about the music.

It’s about the people and the worship and the healing.  At one point, a very specific moment, as I don’t know how many people sang the line of some chorus acapella, I remember wishing that they’d have dimmed the spotlight like all the other lights that had just faded.  It didn’t matter who was on stage, backstage, or in the crowd; it was the single loudest, most melodious and pleasing sound of praise I’d ever heard.

I know the night was for healing and hope, but the whole evening left what felt like a shaving over the top layer of tissue on my heart.  I scraped my way through AP bio some years ago, and while that’s as impressive as my science background goes, when I say layer of tissue on my heart, I mean that I am literally thinking about the muscle tissue making up the organ.

To me, this is an odd image, especially given the context of the situation.  I had the perfect words to explain it on our way out the building and they are escaping me now, but I think it comes down to that moment of praise.

I heard harmonies that rarely appear in choirs so large.  In our words melted anger and desperation, and while there was not yet resolution, there was hope, but it was not offered to or received by any one individual.  In simultaneous praise, came simultaneous peace.


Blessed at BK (Onething, Part II)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn our first night, I waited over an hour and a half for my whopper junior.  I felt so bad for the guy taking my order, I almost tipped him.  I just wasn’t quite sure how to do that at a fast food joint.

Ever since then, we’ve made it a point to ditch the conference sessions just a few minutes early.  The guys and I ran to one of the handful of cheap restaurants within a half a mile of the Kansas City Convention Center for each meal.

I’d have loved to eat better and I usually do, but what are you going to do?  My thinking was dominated by economics.  Four days without access to a grocery store is expensive.  Tonight, I had hoped that the little bit of my lunch that I had saved for dinner would be enough, but by 9pm, the leftovers were clearly no longer cutting it.  Somewhere in the middle of an evening talk, I peeled off in search of food.

So I walked back to Burger King.

It was a long line, but not nearly as a bad as the first night.  Before anything even went wrong, the people in front of me and I talked about BK’s hardworking staff.  I think the same group was working each of the three times I’d been there in the last four days.  Despite these hours, the manager was still all smiley and talked to a group at the register about how much money she had made during the conference, but she also said that the crowds were overwhelming.  I felt for the exhausted woman.

Then the computer went out.  I mean totally out.  The register was broken.  She pushed buttons, coaxed it, tapped it, did everything she could to get it going.  A minute later, the manager jumped up, and gave everyone in line free ice cream and soda.  When the machine didn’t come back to life, they locked the doors and gave us all a free dinner.

I’m might be still be a student, but I’m by no means destitute.  I could have afforded the $4 whopper junior meal, but not getting turned away when they could no longer sell us food lifted the exhaustion that weights you down at the end of a four a day conference.  The staff’s attitudes weren’t just coping, they were thriving and positive.

So here’s to a holiday spirit that doesn’t end on Christmas.  I tried to thank the BK staff, but I think they were moving too quickly to even hear me.

Before any of this, I kept thinking that 25,000 young people attending a Christian conference and infiltrating all the fast food restaurants downtown Kansas City is a lot.  I had hoped that the conference participants would bless the socks right off the restaurant staffs’ feet instead of wearing all the people out.

I don’t know if that happened, but I do know that the midnight worship set I missed at the conference was worth skipping.  The blessing I just received tops it.

Happy New Year.