Lily is Questioned

Beth’s words, “It is not finished,” now assumed the colors blue and black worn by the lady Nathanael escorted into the counselors’ offices. Colors of bruises, Lily thought. Images washed over her mind. Beth’s ruined hair, Lily sneered to herself, was the color of Kraft Mac & Cheese. Her raven black nails at the ends of her mannish hands, the jangle of endless gold bracelets and tarnished rings betrayed want of character. Suddenly Lily was aware she was sweating. Seeking comfort, she glanced through the rectangle of glass in her exterior wall at the oak outside, as if a tree might herald refuge. But its limbs jeered at her, like creation scorned her gaze. The bruise-colored clouds above deepened her gloom.

“Good morning again, everyone. What questions do you have about Hamlet now that you’ve seen him plot to entrap his murdering Uncle Claudius?” Lily asked, trying to pull her thoughts, too, back to the play rather than to her melancholia.

“Do you think Hamlet loves his mother, Ms. Rood,” Michael asked.

“What makes you ask that?” Lily asked in turn.

“Hamlet aims to avenge his father’s murder–more than he longs for his mother and Claudius to repent for the murder of King Hamlet,” Michael said.

“I think he loves his mother, Michael. But he is prompted by his dead father’s ghost. He is importuned, in fact, to swear vengeance. Hamlet says, ‘The time is out of joint. O cursed spite/That ever I was born to set it right!’” Lily said.

“I know,” Michael said, “but he seems so hateful to his own mother.”

“I think Hamlet loves his mother and his father—both of them. But perhaps it is the murder, the corruption and cover-ups in the kingdom, that Hamlet’s personality–his constitution–cannot endure. For whatever reason, he takes justice, as he sees it, into his own hands. He cannot accept the dissolution. Hamlet does not abide fallenness well.”

“Fallenness?” several students asked.

“Yes, that things are not the way they were in the beginning, that something is rotten, not just in Denmark, but with the world. Make sense?” Lily said.

Michael persisted. “So you think Hamlet loves his mother but he loves the idea of a perfect Denmark, a perfect kingdom, an unfallen world, more? Is that what you’re saying, Ms. Rood?”

“I think I am, Michael. May I ask you all a question now?”
The class sat up in their desks whenever Lily did this.

“Do you think Hamlet loved the truth more than he loved people?” Lily asked.

Lily watched her students’ faces. For a moment the class was silent.

“I hope not!” came a voice from the corridor. It was Thomas McDavid, smiling.

“Mr. McDavid. Welcome to our discussion. Would you like to lend some historical perspective?” Lily asked.

“I don’t know if it’s a historical perspective, Ms. Rood, or just a commonsense one,” Mr. McDavid said.

“As you wish then,” Lily said.

“When people love ideas more than people, blood spills. Empires designed on the basis of bad ideas litter history. Carnage is as old as, well, the fall…to use your language.”

“I didn’t ask whether he loved ideas more than people, but whether he loved the truth more than he loved people,” Lily said.

“Are they mutually exclusive?” Michael asked.

“Are you able to expand on your question, Michael?” Lily asked.

“I mean, what if Hamlet loved his father, and was therefore justified to hate Claudius, his father’s killer? That seems like a natural response, right? How does that make Hamlet one who loves truth more than people? Why must loving the truth be opposed to loving people?” Michael asked.

“Michael, I didn’t say that it was, did I?” Lily asked.

“No ma’am, Ms. Rood, you didn’t. But I thought you were suggesting that.”

“I simply asked whether Hamlet loved the truth more than he loved people,” Lily repeated.

“Because Hamlet loved the truth, he hated the corruption, the fallenness of things. Is that what you’re saying, Ms. Rood?”

“I think so, Michael. But I think Hamlet assumed roles that did not properly belong to him,” Lily said.

“Setting things right was not his prerogative, was it?”

“Vengeance was not rightly his, but he made it his, and tragedy unfolded,” Lily said.

“Just as I was saying, Ms. Rood!” said Thomas McDavid, smiling. “By the way, I did not come to conjecture about Hamlet’s motives, my young friend, but to tell you that Mrs. Wilkins says we’re going to meet in the library this afternoon at 3:45 to meet the new counselor.”

“Yes of course,” Lily said. “Thank you, Mr. McDavid.”

Lily and her students watched Mr. McDavid turn away.

“We have a new counselor?” the students erupted. “Who is it? Did someone leave? Did someone get fired?”

“This is English class. We don’t entangle ourselves in banalities, now do we?” Lily asked. “How about we return our thoughts to Hamlet’s plot to avenge his father’s murder? Isn’t that where our focus should be?”

“We were just wondering, Ms. Rood. Aren’t you curious about the changes at our school?” asked a polite girl at the rear of Lily’s class.

“I suppose I should be,” Lily said. “You are right. I suppose I should be.”

(To be continued)

Solomon Visits Lily

Solomon’s words beat against the walls of Lily’s mind: much study had wearied her flesh. Her lower back and hips ached. She lost focus upon what she had planned to cover in classes. She stared long at the bold words on Beth’s stationery. Lily’s mind fed upon itself with Othello-like suspicion. Who is spying upon me at Covenant? Who is the new counselor? Where is Beth now? Lily folded the paper along its creases and slid it back into the envelope. She told herself to sit and gaze at the live oak beyond her classroom window. It reminded Lily of an old man. Its branches were weathered elbows, its bark a wizened face. At last Lily began to quiet when Alice reappeared.

“I found it, Lily!”

“Found what?”

“The book, silly…about hearing from God.”

“Yes of course,” Lily said. “Um, thank you.”

“I know what you’re going to say next,” Alice said.

“You do?”

“Yes. You’re going to tell me to keep going with The Great Gatsby.”

“Correct. Now what shall I say instead?” Lily asked laughing.

“Don’t worry. I’ll keep going,” Alice said. “I really like it. I just think Nick is more small-town boy than he realizes.”

“Correct again, Alice.”

“Do you enjoy Fitzgerald like you do Shakespeare and the other writers you teach, Lily?”

“This could turn into more than we have time for now, don’t you think?”

“Oh I see, I’m sorry. Maybe we can continue later, okay?” Alice asked.

“We have an agreement then,” Lily said.

“You bet,” Alice said.

As Alice disappeared from Alice’s sight, the bell rang for class. Lily struggled to focus her mind on the lessons she had prepared. Beth’s image filled her mind. She pictured Beth’s scorched orange hair and saw the raven-black nails.

Her students began entering. “Good morning, Ms. Rood,” some said.

“Good morning,” Lily heard herself say perfunctorily, hating the sound of her own voice.

“Hi, Ms. Rood. Miss Havisham today?” It was Michael. He could read Lily’s mood prophetically.

“Hello, Michael. How’d you know?” Lily asked, humbled.

“Some stories tell themselves,” he said.

“I may look to you a bit more than usual this morning in class, Michael, okay?”

“Of course, Ms. Rood. I wanted to ask you a lot about Hamlet’s relationship with his mother anyway,” Michael said.

“I have questions about that too,” Lily said. “But enough with the Miss Havisham references already, okay?”

“Of course, Ms. Rood.” Michael walked towards his desk and began talking with other students as the class continued to fill. Lily walked to her door in an effort to appear composed. As she watched students disappearing into other classrooms, she saw Nathanael walking with a woman dressed in black slacks and a royal blue blouse. Together they turned into the counselors’ offices. Lily felt herself begin to sweat under her left armpit. The bell sounded again as she reentered her classroom. Today, her years of study seemed to her to have raised suspicions more than solace.

(To be continued)

Homage to Walt Whitman

I remember the first time I read Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” in college. The poem plucked some invisible strings within my soul. I discovered that the right words in the right order changed things. They gave utterance to stones we carried in our hearts.

Solomon sounded similar thoughts in Proverbs, predating Whitman by millennia when he wrote, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Pr 25:11a, ESV).

The English course was one of those introductory survey courses that non-literary type students dread–a multi-month burden to endure with as scant effort as possible and still pass. But when the instructor assigned the poem, and we later reread it in class, it opened to me musical language. Whitman conducted with a baton:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

As the teacher read aloud most students seemed as moved as molasses. But I looked at the teacher and saw the flame in his eyes, too, that drew light from Whiman’s light. This poem named the unnameable; it expressed how mystery unfurls into a soul. Mystery found relief in language.

Decades later I still go back to that poem, and picture the speaker in the poem trying to listen to pablum. He tried to act the part of dutiful acolyte. Perhaps he envied those who were satisfied with the trivial. But instead, he heard chords sound from outside him, and yet to him, as from the divine conductor. And then he discovered himself looking up at the firmament, almost daring to speak.

A Note Arrives

Lily reentered her classroom. She sat in her cheap metal swivel chair and gazed through the rectangle of window at the live oak outside. Mysteries hung in the boughs of her mind—what to make of Thomas’ comments about Beth and Beth’s replacement in the counselors’ offices, of Beth’s machinations and designs on Lily’s future with Covenant. Beth’s family, she thought, was inseparable from Covenant.

Suddenly there was a knock at her classroom door that startled Lily. It was the bookkeeper, Alice.

“Oh Lily, I am sorry to interrupt anything but there’s a message for you Mrs. Wilkins forgot to give you. I thought I’d just bring it down.”

“Yes, of course. Thanks, Alice.”

“You bet,” Alice replied.

Alice entered Lily’s classroom and handed her an envelope. Lily stood up from the metal chair and stared at the envelope. Alice had not turned to go.

“I’m sorry, Alice, but is that all?”

“I was just curious if you’d like to borrow my book on hearing from God.”

“Well, it may be some time before I could get to it,” Lily said. “I have my literature classes going on; those consume a large portion of time. Plus, in the afternoons, I help interested students who struggle with writing,” Lily said.

“I know you do, Lily. I remember Beth talking about how you had people in your classroom many times that…”

“I’m sorry but what are you suggesting, Alice?”

“Nothing at all. I was just saying that Beth—the counselor, Ms. Aims. Anyway, she mentioned several times to Mrs. Wilkins and us in the front office how you often had people in your classroom. That’s all, Lily. Did I say something? I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything,” Alice said.

“It is fine, Alice. As I said, I help interested students who struggle with writing. And my peers are certainly welcome in my classroom, as I assume I am in theirs. Does that make sense?”

“Of course, Lily. I’m sorry. I just came to deliver a message you had missed, that’s all,” Alice said.

“I will be glad to read that book on hearing from God if you think it’s important,” Lily said.

“You bet, Lily,” Alice replied excitedly. “I’ll go get it, okay?”

Alice’s back disappeared from Lily’s classroom door. Lily stared at the envelope Alice had brought. Inside was a beige piece of stationery that had sullied to the color of dark orange the color of Beth’s ruined hair. B.A. was embossed at the top in black letters. In the middle of the piece of paper were four words: IT IS NOT FINISHED in all caps.

Lily swallowed and looked again through her rectangle of window. Winds stirred. Lily pined and watched the oak’s leaves bristle against each other in agitation as if a thunderstorm were forming.

Lily, Mr. McDavid, and Shakespeare

Paper clips and manila folders in her left hand, Lily walked the tiled hallway towards her classroom. She listened to her flats slap the tile floor and caught scents of coffee from the counselors’ offices. She looked at the trophies inside cases lining the hallway. Wrestlers twisted and taut, frozen in positions of agonized struggle, gripped her. She studied them. Musing, she saw her own reflection in the glass and students’ fingerprints on the sliding, but locked, glass.

Hamlet an insufficient match, my young friend? Taking up wrestling, are we?”

It was Thomas McDavid.

Lily smiled to see Thomas. He wore loafers, a tan shirt with a coffee stain above the third button from the bottom, just above his navel, full coffee cup in his right hand.

“Hardly,” Lily said. “How are you, Thomas?”

“Handsome as ever, don’t you think?” Mr. McDavid laughed, and spilled another drop of coffee on his shirt.

“Did you ever wrestle, Thomas?”

“Of course—but only when I tried to read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.” Mr. McDavid and Lily laughed together.

“If I had had this belly when I was young,” Mr. McDavid said, “I’d look like a bowling pin trapped in a spandex balloon. That would have made for quite the impression.”

Lily laughed again and asked, “Where are you now with your students?”

“Still with Caesar. Having the students read the play, you’ll be glad to know, and research lessons we might draw from the first triumvirate,” Mr. McDavid said.

“You’re having them read the play looking for that?” Lily asked.

“No, no, my young friend. Having them read the play to understand people’s psychology. Your field, Ms. Rood, does a better job of that than mine. When they read the play, students grasp these historical figures as real men and women with conflicts and ambitions and fears—not just as figures on a timeline.”

“Sounds like the literary bug has bitten you, Thomas,” Lily said.

“You stay in Sweden with Othello, Ms. Rood. I’ll cross the Rubicon with my cohorts,” Thomas said laughing.

“Hamlet is a Dane, Thomas McDavid. Othello is a Moor,” Lily protested in laughter. But Thomas had taken his leave.

Lily saw two drops of fresh coffee on the tile floor where Thomas had stood.

She laughed at herself, looked again at the trophy cases, and walked on towards her classroom.

“Oh, Miss Rood. I almost forgot,” Mr. McDavid said. He had turned around in front of his classroom door and turned his head towards Lily.

“Forgot what?”

“Beth has not gone gently.”

“What do you mean?”

“Her replacement, I hear, is a close friend of hers.”

“How do you know?” Lily asked. “Who is it?”

“Someone from here, of course,” Mr. McDavid said.

“What do you mean by here?” Lily asked. “From this town?”

“You said it. She’s not Beth, but close.”

“Thomas, what are you saying? Am I still not safe?”

“Was Caesar? Was Hamlet? No one is safe, Ms. Rood. Hasn’t literature taught you that?” Thomas asked, only partly in jest.

(To be continued)

Lily and Alice

Lily could tell right away, as soon as she entered the faculty bookroom, Alice wanted to talk. Alice was the bookkeeper at Covenant. She was a divorced woman in her early fifties who pulled her auburn hair into a tight bun that revealed a prominent pale forehead. She wore eyeglasses on a silver chain like a woman much older might exhibit. She had on a two-piece black business suit and pumps. She viewed herself as an intellectual, and undervalued by most people. Lily had treated Alice kindly since coming to Covenant and Alice fancied them close friends. Lily liked Alice but could tell she wanted validation. Lily had come for some paper clips and manila folders.

“Good morning, Lily. How was your break? I missed seeing you.”

“Good morning, Alice. Nice to see you, too. Refreshing. I visited some family back in Rook and took some time at the beach. But I’m glad to be back,” Lily said. “How are you?”

“Just great, Lily. In fact, I am reading a new book about hearing from God. I cannot wait to pass it on to you.”

Lily swallowed and searched for a kind word. Anytime she heard people speak of “hearing from God” she got nervous. In Lily’s mind, if you desired to hear from God you opened the Bible.

“I see. I am so encouraged, Alice, that you’re a reader,” Lily said, hoping she did not sound dismissive.

“Did you have a chance to read the Fitzgerald novel I passed along to you?” Lily asked.

“Oh, I am so loving it, Lily. Thank you. I mean, poor Nick Carraway. He is out of his league with Gatsby, isn’t he?” Alice exclaimed.

“It gets better, Alice. Keep going. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the book, okay?”

“You bet,” Alice said excitedly, envisioning a time when she and Lily could dialogue about deep issues.

Lily thought she had said enough but Alice had not forgotten.

“Oh Lily, I almost forgot. Did you say you had not read this book about hearing from God?”

“Um, no. I have not read that one,” Lily said.

“Well, you’ll just love it!” Alice exclaimed. “I’ll be sure you get it after I’m done, okay?”

“Yes, of course. Thank you.”

Lily smiled and continued to the bookroom for her supplies.

(To be continued)

Beside

“I’m right behind you,” I said. That’s what I told my wife and son as they departed the hotel. They had been gone an hour or so and I had only a few remaining administrative tasks to accomplish. Then I would be headed home.

I was wrapping up another Strong Bonds for soldiers and families at an Atlanta-area hotel. The program is designed to aid soldiers in communication skills, in understanding trust and mistrust issues, in working through conflict, in fighting for our marriages, in knowing our own “love languages” and the languages of those to whom we are closest, in how we soldiers—married or single—might make wiser decisions regarding how to show love and sustain love.

All I had remaining, I told myself, were just these final signatures with my hotel contacts, accountability for personnel, double-checking my room for gear, and I could go. I was tired, and longed for my own bed. Long day tomorrow (Monday). Always, I thought, looking ahead.

I’d confirmed all of the soldiers and families who had participated in the three-day event had checked out of the hotel. Most had repacked their cars or trucks for the drive back to their homes. As each event finished, I liked to watch couples leave together. Often they held hands walking out from the hotel through the parking lot, their children pulling at the parents’ pants, asking, “Can we stop for lunch?” or “What are we going to do now?” Unmarried soldiers walked with their battle buddies and talked of common interests, or their evaluations of the training event. Single parents often wore expressions of enduring resolve amidst unspoken solitude.

I finished the paperwork with the hotel staff, double-checked I had all my gear, zipped up my backpack and computer bag, and headed out the door. A twenty year-old bellhop said, “Have a good day, sir” as I exited the vestibule and crossed through the closest parking areas down to the lower lot where I had parked my truck.

I placed my gear in the bed of the truck and got in the cab. I cranked the truck, let the windows down for the accumulated August heat to escape, and turned on the A/C. I sat for a moment taking mental inventory, thinking of anything I might have left behind.

When the cab was cool, I backed out and drove towards the exit gate. When I approached the area to scan my room key, I did. The red and white arm lifted. I dropped my key into the drop box and prepared to turn out of the parking lot onto the main road but as I watched the gate’s arm descend in my rear view mirror, a couple caught my eye. It was not a married couple. It was a father and son. The father was one of our instructors and chaplains. He was walking back to the hotel lobby. I stopped my truck and rolled down the window.

“Is everything okay?” I asked.

“Yes,” the father said, his 10-year-old beside him.

Matthew leaned against his father’s leg, smiling.

“Matthew wanted to go walk through the hotel again. He likes it,” the father said.

Suddenly my thoughts flashed to my own 10-year-old son, and of what it means to walk beside.

I watched them walk on beside each other looking ahead together.