A Candle

Lily rose from her cheap swivel chair. She walked to the rectangle of window and gazed towards the live oak beyond. She seemed fixed upon the outward. The soft early morning light held her. It was impossible to tell if she was listening to her own thoughts or was being scrutinized. Early morning light always held promise for Lily. She could think clearly in the hours before dawn. But as the day grew in noise and bustle she knew she would recede in a type of emotional counterbalance. Had someone entered Lily’s classroom as she stood there looking out, he may’ve pictured a woman contemplating escape or perhaps more.

“My friend, I see you don’t grow slack in keeping your early hours.” Thomas McDavid stood in Lily’s doorway where moments before Desiree Dramal had landed.

“Good morning, Thomas. How are you, my friend?” Lily asked.

“I didn’t pop a single button on my shirt when I dressed today. In short, marvelous,” Thomas McDavid said. “Before I know it, I’ll be able to see my shoes again when I look down.”

Lily and Thomas laughed together. Lily tasted again the beauty of friendship and envied Thomas’ indomitable optimism.

“Thomas, may I ask you a question about history?”

“As long as it’s not a date about when an empire fell or what time of day Oglethorpe invaded Savannah. I weary of how history’s lessons are murdered via banal questions that are nothing but recollections of data.”

“Nothing like that, Thomas. It’s about this town,” Lily said.

“Really. Go ahead, then. I’ve been here since Dr. Smith cut Mom’s umbilical, so I hope I’ll know the answer,” Mr. McDavid said.

“Can you tell me the history of the town’s name—Glim? I thought where I came from in Rook was antiquated. But Glim, it’s not a common town name, I don’t think,” Lily said.

“You’re right, of course. It means ‘candle’,” Mr. McDavid said.

“What makes you ask that, my young friend?” Thomas McDavid said, gazing at Lily.

“My surname is Rood, which means ‘crucifix’. I’ve always laughed at the fact of my last name. My family tree is a long line of Protestants; yet my last name hearkens to a crucifix. I don’t fit my name—historically. Not a Catholic back at least 500 years in my family,” Lily said.

“Glim has you thinking about all of this, does it?” Thomas asked.

“I was just thinking, that’s all. I’m still trying to find my way at Covenant and in Glim, Thomas.”

“Both will benefit, my friend. Study long, study wrong, as some of our older generations used to say.”

Lily looked at Thomas questioningly.

“Perhaps you’re our newest candle, my young friend,” Thomas McDavid said. He smiled and turned to go.

Lily smiled at him. She wished to thank him but the doorway was vacant. Lily turned her eyes outside and squinted. Sunlight fell in dappled patches on the grass, tiny oval pools of gold.

Beauty as Messenger

Beauty as messenger. I’ve taught literature for many years now. I remain convinced that great literature reflects man’s best, noblest, most exalted efforts to express truth beautifully. For some, that may sound sentimental and saccharine. For others, however, Browning’s line, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?” expresses what great literature aims for, namely, truth beautifully written. Might truth beautifully expressed be a messenger? And why do most avoid contemplating it?

The things in life that mean most to us are oftentimes the things about which most people avoid talking. It is more convenient to tweet or post. Headlines, not history. News is just that—new. We’re a “… and now this” culture, as Neil Postman wrote about. It’s what’s “happening now.” There is no room for the great enduring truths of literature when we can get updates sent to our phones and have news scrolled across the gadgets of our choice. We’re connected electronically but exiled in our souls. Where’s room for truth and beauty? Any room for a messenger?

The world is too much with us; late and soon,/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;–/Little we see in Nature that is ours;/We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!” Wordsworth’s poem, “The World Is Too Much With Us,” still speaks, does it not? Might these words, penned hundreds of years ago, serve as a messenger of that which endures?

This morning driving to work I had the radio on in my truck. The radio DJ was telling of how Tom Petty died this week, and of how his albums are now selling at many times the rate they were when he was still living. I was not a big fan of Petty’s music but I do respect how he labored in his craft. For Petty, it was music. His songs are played constantly because he spoke to the human experience and he tailored his talents to fit the genre of rock and roll. And music lovers continue to respond by buying up his albums and turning up the volume. There’s a message through all this and it’s not just the tunes. It speaks to a longing in the human heart for beauty and for truth. I do not wish to stretch the analogy too far. I would not choose to argue that Petty’s lyrics are great literature. However, Petty’s music has endured because it speaks to people in ways music mysteriously has the power to do. It touches people’s souls. It stirs them. It reminds them of what they value, of what brings joy. And those things endure.

I’ve read the following lines hundreds of times: “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). It’s a reminder that we don’t know our end. I doubt that Tom Petty knew last week that he had less than a week to live.

James wrote in similar fashion: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:13-14).

Why do I still love teaching Shakespeare and Faulkner? Why do I try to open the Psalms to students who malnourish themselves on intellectual Twinkies? It’s because I remain more convinced than ever that the human soul atrophies if starved of truth and beauty.

I plan to drive home late today. When I do, I will drive north and the sun will be descending over the trees over my left shoulder. When I enter the community where my family and I live, I will wind over hills and cross a lake. On that lake, the sun will place its golden fingers across the water’s surface. Loons and geese will likely be flying overhead. Drakes and ducks are likely to be paddling around and dipping their heads beneath the surface, then reemerging with drops of water on their glossy crowns. And again I will be speechless before beauty. I will be suddenly filled with a message. It’s a message worth telling.

 

The Question of the Theater

“Christ,” Lily uttered.

“Ma’am?” Michael asked. “Ms. Rood, did you hear what I said?”

“Michael!”

“Yes, it is. Are you alright, Ms. Rood?”

“Michael,” Lily said again. “I’m sorry. What were you saying?”

“I came to give you a message from Mrs. Wilkins in the front office.”

“What is it, Michael? I apologize. I must’ve fallen asleep or something,” Lily said.

“You were talking, Ms. Rood. You said ‘Christ’ when I entered your class. But no one is here with you. I just came in early to get some assignments. Mrs. Wilkins buzzed me in. You remember, right? I’m going to be out a few days for the fieldtrip with the acting team in Atlanta for theater practice,” Michael explained.

“Of course, Michael. Thank you for that.”

“Are you sure you’re alright, Ms. Rood?

“Yes, fine.”

“Mrs. Wilkins and the bookroom lady are in the front office, if you need me to ask them to get something for you,” Michael continued.

“It’s fine now, Michael. I just…”

“It’s okay, Ms. Rood. I won’t say anything about it. Oh yeah, I almost forgot. The bookroom lady…”

“Her name is Alice, Michael, not bookroom lady,” Lily said.

Suddenly there was a knock at Lily’s open classroom door. Michael and Lily turned their heads simultaneously.

Desiree Dramal stood in Lily’s doorway, arms crossed, causing her breasts to appear still larger, even for her considerable height. Her legs were so long Lily thought they themselves could be characters in a Kafka story.

“I had heard you came to work early, Ms. Rood—and that you often had people in your classroom at odd hours.”

“Excuse me?” Lily said. “This is Michael. He is one of my seniors. He came for his assignments.”

“Of course, Ms. Rood. Not to worry,” Desiree Dramal said, uncrossing her arms and turning her palms upright to assuage Lily.

“What was it you needed?” Lily asked.

“I can see you have someone with you, Ms. Rood. I will return later. Just some unfinished business.”

“I was not aware we had begun any business,” Lily said.

“Michael, could you give us a moment, please?” Lily asked. Michael retrieved a journal and folder from his desk and disappeared.

“Yes, Ms. Dramal. I do come to work early. I did not realize that was worthy of discussion, but I must be wrong.”

“Not to worry, Ms. Rood. I was just sharing some things I’d heard. It doesn’t bother you, does it?”

“What bothers me is your not telling me what you came for. You did have a reason, I assume?”

“Ah yes. My friend Alice…you know Alice up front, right?…she wanted me to ask you if you’d had a chance to read her book on hearing from God. But that’s not what I came for. I was going to ask you if you would help with the spring play. I hear you’re good with working with students and their elocution,” Desiree Dramal said.

“Aren’t you in counseling, Ms. Dramal? You understand why I ask. What do you have to do with theater and elocution?”

“I like to be involved in a lot of things, Ms. Rood. I see myself as a kind of rudder, if you will, steering things…but behind the scenes,” Desiree Dramal said.

Lily felt bile rise in the back of her throat. Acrid. She was close to vomiting. “I will certainly consider it and let the right people know,” Lily said. “Is that all?”

“For now, Ms. Rood. Thank you. I can see that you enjoy working with students and others at many hours, so the theater would be a good place for your talents,” Desiree Dramal said. She slid saurian-like from Lily’s doorway and was gone.

(To be continued)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Greater

Though March still, Lily felt hot. She perspired easily, especially when distressed. Thoughts of Beth’s and Desiree Dramal’s schemes roiled her emotions. She turned on her car’s radio as she passed Beulah, its white steeple and cross overwatching.

An established pastor-teacher’s voice was preaching from Luke 20. Lily listened to Dr. M____________ read Luke’s gospel:

And in the hearing of al the people he said to his disciples, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

Lily turned up the dial. She labored to reconcile these words with her life. Then she turned the dial back down, assured of God’s mysterious providence.

Lily neared her place and thought of her days ahead with her students. She wanted to push them to think through Hamlet’s many struggles to set things right in Elsinore. She wanted them to see how Pip and Estelle had reasons to hope for restoration in Great Expectations. She thought of how she might help with the spring play.

Lily’s drive today, like many, comforted her. Most of the fields were plowed, tilled, ready for seed. As she neared her home, she turned the radio dial up again. She wanted to hear the remainder of the pastor’s teaching.

She decided to drive out to Donald’s farm. As she turned onto the highway that led to Donald’s farm, Lily listened to the pastor: Jesus told his followers that the impostors would receive ‘greater condemnation’. God is not blind, beloved. He is not, as Paul says, mocked. ‘Greater condemnation’.” Then the pastor fell silent as if unsure of whether to end. Finally his voice returned and he prayed.

Lily neared Donald’s farm. As she did, she discovered she had arrived before Donald had returned from the Cup-n-Saucer. She pulled off the highway and gazed over towards his property as if in thanksgiving.

Cross

Lily focused her eyes upon the door of the Cup-n-Saucer. She longed to escape. Walking past the waitress, Lily nodded her head. The waitress nodded in return as if understanding. In the glass window in front of her Lily saw Beth’s orange hair reflected. Beth’s black nails curled as talons and Desiree Dramal’s long black slacks seemed to lengthen and writhe with each of Lily’s footfalls. Suddenly the image of Beth’s beige stationery with B.A. at the top and IT IS NOT FINISHED burned upon Lily’s brain as she heard the glass door close behind her.

“Lily!”

Looking up, Lily saw Alice.

“Hey, Alice. What’re you doing here?”

“A couple of my friends are meeting me here this afternoon,” Alice said.

“I see. Enjoy.”

“Lily, why don’t you—“

“I’m really tired, Alice. Going home now. See you at work, okay?”

“You bet, Lily. You know, I heard you mention coffee when we were still at work but I thought you were just kidding. But my friend Beth called me and asked me to meet our mutual friend Desiree at the Cup-n-Saucer, and—well, isn’t that ironic, Lily? I mean, we could all be together.”

“That is ironic, Alice. See you soon, okay?” Lily heard her own voice and wondered if it sounded cruel to Alice. She liked Alice but doubted her judgment.

Lily drove towards her rental property. She passed Beulah and contemplated its steeple and cross where they looked upon this city of man.

Interruption

Lily heard Beth’s bracelets click against each other as they slid up and down her forearms when she and Desiree Dramal walked towards her, Thomas McDavid, and Donald. Instinctively Lily looked out through the Cup-n-Saucer’s windows searching for the live oak like she had outside her classroom window, but none was there. Outside the diner lay the flat land in that noiseless gray stillness after spring rain. The March sky appeared a dome of seamless gray. The noise of Beth’s bracelets and her yellow-orange ruined hair clashed with the gray evening. Lily braced herself as Beth’s shadow neared the table first. Desiree Dramal stood to the left of Beth, and slightly behind. Lily felt her chest tighten.

“Hello everyone,” Beth said. “Are some of Covenant’s faculty still meeting? If so, Desiree and I would welcome your hospitality.”

“Good evening,” Donald said. “We were about to leave, but you ladies are welcome to our seats if you like.” Donald slid his metal chair back and stood. Lily felt her chest suddenly release. She had again underestimated Donald.

“I’m sure you all are thrilled to have Ms. Dramal in counseling now. I’ll verify she continues to advise students in the ways they should go,” Beth said undeterred.

“Beth, please tell your sisters and families we said hello,” Thomas McDavid said, rising from his chair. “With Nathan at Covenant, I hope to have them come around more often.”

Beth glowered at the group, seeking for words. Lily rose from her chair, her coffee still hot and undisturbed.

“Excuse me,” Lily said, “I have had enough coffee today. I’m heading home.” Lily rose from her chair. Had one looked at Lily’s eyes, he would have seen Desiree Dramal’s long black slacks reflected there like serpentine coils.

He Still Is

I saw my grandfather today though he died in the winter of 2004.

I took the steps down to the basement searching for a tool. I had forgotten I had hung his worn and gray two-tine cultivator hoe (with the bent left prong and chinked metal on the blade) up on the brown pegboard of the basement walls.

When I saw it there, it was too late. I was as upturned as the middle Georgia soil he sank this hoe into. Torn open by steel.

I saw you again, Granddaddy, with your knotted hands around this handle, bent over the obdurate soil, importunate as the punishing sun, living sermons I was too immature then to appreciate, planting images in generations.

I saw you today, Granddaddy. And you were even grander.