After teaching freshman composition for seventeen years, I resigned, attended seminary, and was ordained a pastor. My “new year” no longer began with a fall semester but with Advent, January no longer the start of spring semester but Epiphany, March no longer mid-semester but Lent, and summer, after Pentecost. Yet, I never lost touch with academic rhythms. After fourteen years behind the pulpit, I found myself longing for the lectern. One spring morning, like an animal that’s been hibernating, I woke up and applied for a full-time teaching position where I used to work. I got the job.
During the final week of my first fall semester back in the classroom, I was thinking about my return to teaching, and I wanted my composition students to think about changes in their lives now that they were in college and had completed one semester. On the last day of classes, I handed out a copy of Mary Oliver’s poem “Mindful.” Instead of a December Gospel passage about the Second Advent of Jesus or the call to repent of John the Baptist, Oliver’s poem would be our commonplace liturgy. Each student would read a stanza, the first part of a ritual to set off this moment for them and for me: the end of our first semester. I hoped they would “lose [themselves] / Inside this soft world” and recite “prayers that are made out of grass”—prayers that come from materials and texts of lives rather than from a document that supposedly represents the truth.
Once we finished reading, I distributed to my students strips of white paper, each 8.5 by 1 inch. On the left end of the strip, I asked them to write the word that describes how they feel right now about their first semester. Then, on the other end of the strip, I asked them to write the antonym of that first word. These strips would wrap up not a star-crossed deity but the words—“the common, the very drab”—of earth-born eighteen-year-olds. After they folded or rolled up the strips, I then walked up and down the rows of desks, gripping a Prussian indigo ceramic bowl with both hands and trying not to slip on the slick linoleum, as the students dropped their strips of paper into the bowl. I had to bring the bowl home in one piece: my husband loaned it to me. I set the bowl on my desk and slid it away from the edge. Viewing the crunched-up slips piled in the bowl, I wondered how my students had summarized “that more and less” in one word and its opposite. After the students had spent the semester writing the required, 750-word assignments, on this last day of class, two words would be all I could get out of them, and I hoped they wrote something other than “good and bad” or “cool and lame.”
I turned to face the twenty-four students with whom I had spent fifteen weeks, weeks organized around the rhetorical strategies of audience and purpose rather than the exegesis of a pericope. Before indulging me with this two-word free-writing exercise, they had listened to my closing remarks about grades and study abroad possibilities. But now, they were ready to bolt: desks were cleared, and backpacks were not on the floor but in laps. I told them that during the next semester I would pull out of the bowl one piece of paper each day, unwrap it, and recite both words on their behalf. Even though they wouldn’t hear me, they would know that their words mattered to me. After all, I thought to myself, if Mary could “treasure” certain words and “ponder them in her heart,” so could I. I excused my students for the semester.
I brought the bowl home and set it on the deep windowsill above my desk, a space wide enough for Honey Kitty to sit and watch the chickadees and titmice perch on bare branches of a silver maple that looks weightless this time of year. She wouldn’t be happy, but she could reclaim her space in about three months.
On the first day of the spring semester, I drew out a strip of paper, unwrapped it, and read out loud the first pair of words: “Fearful. Optimistic.” Beyond saying the words out loud, I didn’t really know at first what else I was going to do. Treasuring them in my heart didn’t seem substantial enough to make them matter. Then, in the few minutes I had left before I had to leave for campus, I recorded them in my journal, a college-ruled, black and white composition notebook, along with dictionary.com’s word of the day: “crepitate,” a word I could actually use, since we heat our house with wood.
The next day, I pulled out another strip.
I wrote these in my journal too, and then I free-wrote in response to the words. Each day for two months, I pulled out a strip from the bowl and recited the pair of words. Whatever the bowl offered, I wrote the words in my journal and responded to them, usually not more than half a page of stream-of-consciousness prose and poetry.
“Courageous. Defeated.” “Traumatic. Liberating.” “Proud. Defeated.” “Motivated. Discouraged.” “Prepared. Unprepared.” “Regretful. Thankful.” “Disappointed. Surprised.” “Delightful. Dreadful.” “Motivated. Discouraged.”
When I look back at these journal entries now, I can’t discern an overarching theme. I used the words to write in the moment about students, teaching, and my personal satisfactions and disappointments, regrets and surprises. For a season, these pairs of words—not heard from on high—became my “daily presentations.” They brought me through the narrow strait of metaphysical promises in which I had existed for fourteen years. I was the one who needed “to lose myself inside the soft world” again and make my prayers word by word from a bowl, a windowsill, Honey Kitty, a silver maple tree, chickadees and titmice, the five acres of oak, locust, and poplar trees surrounding my house, and student chatter before and after class. At the end of the this strait, I pushed open the wide gate. I welcomed the world, along with words that burst forth like seeds of a pomegranate: “Juicy. Messy.” “Tart. Healthy.” “Distinct. Abundant.”
Luke 2:19. New Revised Standard Version.
Oliver, Mary. “Mindful.” Why I Wake Early: New Poems, 58-59. Boston: Beacon Press, 2005.
Marcy H. Nicholas writes some sentences in between walking her dog, grading student papers, and playing golf. She lives with her husband in Hellam Township, York PA and teaches first-year composition and professional writing courses at Penn State York.