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Isn’t it Just Like a Human?

“And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this.”

 Esther 4:14b

A major theme in literature, hell in life, is the idea of fate/destiny vs. free will. Do we actually have the option to choose our own path or are we predestined for something outside our control?

Much of our discussions in my class this week have centered around this, and oddly enough in my personal life as well.

This week with my seniors we talked about Paradise Lost, which I’ll admit is one of my favorite and lest favorite works to do with high schoolers. I love to talk about it because of the major themes it introduces and the way it requires them to think from different perspectives (particularly with all the allegorical implications—with the epic hero being called into question and the shift in how we perceive the hero and of course the purpose in writing a piece and how it reflects the historical backdrop of the author’s intent—there is such a wealth of discussion to draw from). It’s my least favorite for the same reason. There is no way to cover it all and even when I try to cover a tenth of it; the material can seem tedious (even to my best students) and so I often come away with a sense of disillusionment.


However, isn’t that just like a human?


After we look at Paradise Lost we move on to Lanier’s piece on “Eve’s Apology” and we talk about the Quarelle des Femmes. This is always entertaining for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is because it’s our version of the blame game for the fall of Eden. During Lanier’s time the Quarelle des Femme (Question of Women) and used in the later half of the 19th century where the roles of women were being questioned and challenged probably for the first time in recorded history and a large part of it centered around, or at least used as evidence, Eve’s role in the fall of Eden. So in “Eve’s Apology”, Lanier argues that Adam is just as much at fault for the fall of Eden as Adam and offers evidence supporting that claim and refuting much of the misogynistic mindset held previously. While the piece is heavily biased, we then hold our own debate about who is responsible for the fall of Eden and I assign students their own roles for this debate (they don’t choose sides) and then they have to offer evidence to prove their “opinion”. I allow it to go on until it gets repetitive or to heavily laden with pathos. Then we discuss. Then I allow them to broaden their scope because students argue with me that Adam and Eve aren’t the only players. So they split into four corners—Adam, Eve, Serpent or God—who is the most to blame. Out of about 30 students, only 4 stick with Adam and Eve holding most of the responsibility—the rest split between the serpent and God and we discuss the ramifications of this and then students reflect.


But to me, isn’t this just like a human?


Adam and Eve didn’t want to take responsibility in the garden, and even today we don’t want them to hold the responsibility. We want to say it’s the higher powers that are really responsible. If God hadn’t created that tree then… Well if the serpent hadn’t present temptation then…. Personal responsibility is just not something humans are fond of.

Which is why the fate vs. free will theme is such a popular one. If it is our fate for something to happen then we don’t have to take responsibility for the ramifications of our decisions, right?

I’m not so sure.

Because here’s the thing. Yes, God created the tree in that garden. But what if he hadn’t? Would we have free will? If there is nothing to choose—does choice exist? Sure, God is so outside of time he probably knew what was going to happen when he created the tree, but he still decided to give us the choice because he’d rather have companions and a relationship with us than naked drones in a garden. Because if we didn’t have free will, we wouldn’t be stuck in the “middle state” that Pope describes in his “Essay on Man”. We’d just be beasts in a garden with no capacity to reason or choose. That sounds like a boring person to have a relationship with. I mean, I love my dog, but I need my human friends.

And if there was no one to tempt us, no serpent, then we would never know our own integrity. Adam and Eve both made a choice. “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it” (Genesis 3:6). Maybe it was their destiny, but it was also their choice. Regardless of whether you see this story as literature, or as spiritual, the lessons it teaches are worth remembering.

Which brings me back to Esther, and of course myself. Esther was brought to the palace, but it wasn’t of her own free will, exactly. I mean, technically she probably could have run away, but where would she run to? She’s a teenager in Susa. She runs off into the desert to do what? Get eaten by wild beasts? Die of dehydration? Become a Bedouin or a prostitute? Really, her only viable option was to go to the palace to be either the King’s concubine or queen, and she lucked out. She was chosen as Queen. Then, Haman, the conniving weasel decides he doesn’t like all the Jews (bad blood between his people and the Jews, exacerbated by Mordecai’s disobedience of the ordnance to pay homage to Haman) and so he’s going to kill them all. Great. What he doesn’t know is he has just sentenced his queen to death. Oops.

Well, who knows, Esther, maybe this is your destiny.

I don’t know about you, but those are not very comforting words when approaching your husband for leniency could mean your death.


But, isn’t that just like a human?


Mordecai needs Esther to do this to save her people, so who knows! Maybe it’s your destiny—and that keeps his hands clean if it goes wrong (I’m being a little harsh on Mordecai, but I really feel for Esther. Poor girl.). But in a weird way, that who knows does give us hope.

Because, as Beth Moore points out in her Esther study, when the who knows becomes “I know” we know it is our destiny—and this is when we are disillusioned. When we come face to face with our destiny we sometimes feel like it should have more meaning than just ‘who knows’. I feel for Esther here—she’s faced with a destiny and she realizes that either way she will likely die. What a moment of mortality for a teenager. Not on the same scale, but I’ve had those same feelings of, dude, it wasn’t supposed to turn out this way.

I had a plan. I knew what my life was going to look like, and this wasn’t it. I’ve wanted to be a teacher for pretty much my entire life, but when you get up one day and your students come into class and aren’t responsive, or are responsive negatively or ask you things like: “Ms. Carmichael do you ever get bored when you are teaching?” I kind of just want to throw my marker in the air and say “to heck with this destiny.”

But I don’t.

Because more often than not when we have a personal relationship with God, we know that even when our destiny doesn’t seem to be exactly what we thought it was, He’s still got a hand in it—which is why I love Esther’s response. She doesn’t say yes, exactly. She says, “Go gather and fast. I will go. And If I perish, I perish.”

Hello, thank you personal responsibility. I did not hear a “If I perish—it’s your fault Uncle Mordecai” or “If I perish, God will avenge me”.  It’s “If I perish, I perish”. Esther realized two things about this debate. 1) Destiny requires sacrifice and 2) Destiny requires action (free will).

I’ve had that response to my life more than once. “Okay God, I’ll keep on here. But if I snap, I snap.” I haven’t snapped yet (though I’ve been close some days, kids, so you better watch yourselves ;-)).  Some days are harder than others, especially when I’m struggling with my own personal life. I’m exhausted for reasons outside my control, I have family issues (and boy do I have issues), and I do, contrary to popular belief, have a life outside of school. Even so, who knows? Maybe you’ve been brought to this position for such a time as this?

Because 1) Destiny requires sacrifice—and I can attest to that and 2) Destiny requires action (free will) and I’ll add a 3) Destiny requires thankfulness. Because, after all, God created us for SOMETHING, he gave us free will to give us a purpose, and that is something to be thankful for even when things get tough.

I guess my point is this. We spend a lot of time debating whether it’s destiny or free will—when in reality, it’s both. Or destiny is dependent on our free will. The more we rely on our God the more He will guide us to the destiny we were born for. The more we resist, the more suffering we will endure on our way to our destiny—whatever that may be. Because, isn’t it just like a human to make things more complicated than it has to be?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve explained something to my students 12 or 13 times and then I tell them to get to work and then they ask me what they are supposed to be doing. I explain it once more and they say: Oh, is that all?

Yes, dears. That’s all. Don’t make it more complicated than it is. And I remind myself of the same.

Don’t make it more complicated than it is.


Because isn’t that just like a human.


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Threads and Moles

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Honey and Cinnamon Latte from Camino Bakery in Downtown Winston…Still thinking about this one.

 

I have a lot of things running through my mind on a daily basis, as I’m sure you all do. But every once in a while, just like in a great work of literature, I start to see a common thread. A theme if you will, running through each area, popping in and out like those little moles in the arcade game. They tuck their little heads out just long enough to tease you and then just when you are about to whack them, they are gone again and generally laughing manically in the process. If you’re lucky (or maybe if you just have good reflexes), however, you get one and the ‘doiiiiing’ that echos throughout the arcade is quite satisfying.

That’s how I feel when I see one of these themes—Doiiiiing. Gotcha. Quite satisfying.

It started with Macbeth. I teach it every year, but timing, as they say, is everything. So despite the fact that I talk about these things with a new group of students every few months, I always learn something new from my kids (I guess that’s part of why I like teaching) and so the material is always fresh. This week we did our Brown Bag Exam. I love this test for two reasons. 1) I love the look on my students’ faces when they realize that I’m not joking and this actually their test on the novel. And 2) I love what it teaches the students, deeper levels of critical thinking and synthesis of motif, theme, character, plot, and all elements of narrative. Watching them pull it all together is, well, brilliant. So, despite the fact that one class had to play “Simon Says” at the end because following directions was a little too much for some of them (that’s a story for another time), the test ended and I began grading them. Many of the students were focused on Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s inability to ‘cleanse’ or ‘purify’ themselves of their crimes because they had been ‘soiled’ by evil and covered in blood. I love some of the comments they made. One student, who had soap in her bag said she immediately thought of the old saying “cleanliness is next to godliness”, which Macbeth and Lady Macbeth could never achieve because of their trafficking with evil. No matter how hard they ‘scrubbed’ as Macbeth said “all of Neptune’s Oceans” would not rinse the blood from his hands.

Which brings me to thread number two. In our Bible study this week we were talking about Anna and Elizabeth, as we read through Dynamic Women of the Bible by Ruth A. Tucker. This was a fascinating discussion, from some pretty dynamic women in our church. The thread continued with our discussion of Elizabeth, who becomes the mother of John the Baptist. Since our previous discussion of Sarah the month before was still pretty fresh in our minds, this connected pretty well as both women were well advanced in years when they became pregnant with their children. But where this took a turn is when we began a discussion of the purification process for women after childbirth in Jewish culture. Following the birth of a female child, a woman must undergo an 80 day purification process whereas following the birth of a male child a woman must undergo a 40 day purification process. All feminist arguments about why such a discrepancy must exist aside, we began to discuss when the process would begin given that Elizabeth was present at John’s circumcision (which occurs 8 days after the birth). If she is still being ‘purified’ how is it possible that she can be present? Well, of course, I did some research and I found out, that the “impure” period means that she can simply not be with her husband sexually for the period of 40 days after having a male child and until she goes through the Mikveh process (a period of ritual cleansing in which she bathes in a collective water—doesn’t have to be living water). This then makes her “clean”. The eight day waiting period is also because of a purity and cleansing period, which is why circumcision is done on the eighth day I believe, and is when she is able to enter the temple after undergoing a cleansing process as well (there are many cleansing processes for men too, by the way, just in case you are wondering about all this!). Elizabeth, unlike the Macbeths, brought life into the world—she didn’t take it away, yet she still had to be cleansed. I ruminated on this for days trying to figure out why my brain couldn’t let go of the thread.

And then I remembered Esther.

I’m doing a Bible study with some friends on Esther and we were talking about Chapter two this week, and my thread just got LONGER. Especially verses 8-9: “When the king’s order and edict had been proclaimed, many girls were brought into the citadel of Susa and put under the care of Hegai. Esther also was taken to the king’s palace and entrusted to Hegai, who had charge of the harem. The girl pleased him and won his favor. Immediately he provided her with her beauty treatments and special food. He assigned to her seven maids selected from the king’s palace and moved her and her maids into the best place in the harem.”

Okay, I know what you are thinking: “Ashley, that’s not a mole, that’s a skunk. Let it go.” I know, this doesn’t look like it connects to the Macbeths or to Elizabeth at all, but bear with me. There is a thread.

In the harem, Hegai provided her with beauty treatments. Let’s skip down a few verses to 12: “Before a girl’s turn came to go in to King Xerxes, she had to complete twelve months of beauty treatments prescribed for the women, six months with oil of myrrh and six with perfumes and cosmetics.” Now do you seem my thread? I’m pretty sure that sounds like cleansing to me. And she was already beautiful to begin with, so what in the world was she being cleansed from? Maybe for Esther it wasn’t about being cleansed from anything, but being prepared for something greater. And boy did she get prepared for something…unbelievable (bless her heart).

So what in the world is happening here? Why is my life suddenly filled with stories and ideas and conversations about purity and cleansing?

Honestly, I have no idea. But, I do think it invites me to take a look at my own life and ask myself some hard questions about my motivations and self-interests. Sometimes the threads in our lives take on a theme for a reason, to point out something that need to be cleansed, to point out that we are not perfect, to point out that perhaps those slippery moles can be caught and examined.

And sometimes, it just gives us one more thing to write about.

Whatever the case may be, I don’t ignore them. Because if you ignore the threads, you’re likely to get caught on a nail and unravel. And if you ignore a mole…well, they’re worse than rabbits about multiplying and if you have them in your yard for too long—well, say goodbye to your infrastructure. Whack those moles, and whack them good. It really is quite satisfying.

 

It’s Tough Being a Woman…

This is the title of one of my favorite Bible studies by Beth Moore (Living Proof Ministries). If you have the opportunity to participate in this study at any time, I highly recommend it. This week I started studying Esther, the book of the Bible the study focuses on, and I realized how much Biblical hope the book gives us—even though, ironically, God is not mentioned in the book—ever.

So why is it tough being a woman?

If we were honest, we’d probably say it’s tough being a human, but I know more about being a woman, so I’m going to focus on that.

  • It’s tough being a woman when you feel like the whole world rests on your shoulders alone.

The struggle of modern womanhood is feeling as though you have to do it all—24/7. The feminist movement had a lot of positive outcomes, but one of the negative effects was this belief that to show weakness and dependence on a man—or even other women—is a bad thing.

But to be weak is human.

We all have weakness. Men do, and so do women. Neither is “better” or “worse” kind of weakness—it is dependent on the individual—but the fact of the matter is we are all weak. And we might as well start admitting it to ourselves, because as much as we want to believe that we are all Wonder Women, eventually those gold bracelets and white boots get tarnished and dirty. Some of us do a great job of proving that we are…for a while. And then we get tangled in our own lasso of truth. We can’t DO IT ALL. Humans are dependent on one another and we might as well admit it.

Now, I’m the pot, and I’m calling the kettle black right now. I know this to be true because this week alone I was trying to be about 6 people: I was a teacher teaching and grading research papers (4-5 a night baby), I was a “synchronized swimming participant” (we had practice this week for the talent show next week!), I was a program volunteer for Winston Salem Writers (organized and executed a program; 20 attendees, thank you very much), I was a Sunday School teacher (Found a great new lesson book, but I have to modify it, because it’s just not 100% right for my kids), I was a granddaughter/daughter/niece (had a family dinner before my grandfather’s surgery), I was a devoted granddaughter (visited my grandfather in the hospital), I was a Key Club Sponsor and UNICEF fundraiser ($930 dollars raised so far toward our $2000 goal), and I was a writer (not a very good one; I only wrote about 1000 words this week blech).

Okay, 7 people. And now I’m tired. Because it’s tough being a woman.

  • It’s tough being a woman when your destiny seems out of your hands.

As I was reading Esther 1 this week, I looked specifically at Xerxes and his party hardy attitude. SO he holds this party that lasts for 180 days (that’s a school year btw) which is totally insane and he invites not only the nobles, but all the military leaders, and I think anyone involved in the military would agree with me that there are some really fine military officers out there, but there are also some notoriously crude military officers out there. Not to mention the spoiled brats that would have been the princes and leaders. So when I put it into this context and the fact that “as much wine as he wished” is mentioned 3x I wonder if Vashti’s refusal is  more than just being tired of her trophy status–I wonder if she isn’t terrified. Do I really believe that all the men would be polite in this kind of setting–especially the King? After all, this is the man who takes all the beautiful virgins of the kingdom into his harem later.

But that’s not really what they’re worried about. They’re upset that she refused, but they’re more upset that other wives—their wives may follow her example and refuse them as well. OMG! What if MY wife refuses MY demands?! They think. And I see that this isn’t a story just about power, it’s a story of finding our own feminine power (not in a let’s stop shaving our legs way–but in the sense that we have a purpose in God’s kingdom as well). Because what they are really afraid of is a feminine rebellion and that is typical for the ruler Xerxes who was having a hard enough time keeping control of his military holdings, the last thing he needed was domestic uprising. That would just add to his fear, thus, I suppose his irrational decisions.

Vashti and the other women are dependent on the men and their decisions and when they make their own decisions, the men start acting like spoiled children. And that, my friends, is tough.

And sometimes I’ve felt that other people are in control of my destiny. Obviously I have a lot more freedom than Vashti and the other women of Susa, but I’m still dependent on a lot of things in my society. I teach in a public school and I have to depend on the elected officials in the NC House and Senate who are fairly clueless as to what it is like in the school system to make decisions that affect my entire fate—and I’m not just talking about pay. They also determine class sizes and resources and curriculum. And that is tough. I get emotional, upset and angry and yes I can vote against the people who are doing things I don’t like, but then usually they are for something else I don’t like and so I’m caught it this perpetual state of inner conflict about what the right choice is for the greater good. And that is tough too.

At any rate, I don’t know why Vashti refused. Maybe she was just being a spoiled brat. Maybe she was scared. Maybe she was tired of being shown off. Regardless, what it shows us is that men and women—humans–need to communicate and they need to do it with clear heads and minds. If they don’t things become muddied very quickly.

  • It’s tough being a woman when society’s expectations are too high for you to live up to.

I’m not really going to expand on this one much, because I think it speaks for itself. Society expects a lot from women and it’s why we have a multi-billion dollar beauty industry. It’s exhausting.

So, my point: It’s tough being a woman—it’s tough being a human, but we just keep trucking and every once in a while we find those beautiful moments that make it all worth it.

Why aren’t you married yet?

If I had a dollar…or a quarter…or a nickel…well, let’s just say I get asked this question a lot by teenagers who have the tact of the Jolly Green Giant in a China shop.

To be fair the conversation usually starts with the pictures of my darling nieces on my walls, who, do in fact look an awful lot like me (genetics are very powerful). It goes something like this:

Me: I know.

Student: Do you have any kids?

Me: No.

Student: Do you want kids?

Me: Maybe someday. Depends on whether all you jokers drive me stark raving mad first or not.

Student: Are you married? [Bingo the million dollar question]

Me: Nope.  [And this is where it goes one of two directions]

Student A: Why aren’t you married yet?              Student B: Don’t you ever want to get married?

Neither of these conversations, of course, have anything to do with English, but you’re kidding yourself if you think my job is just about literature, grammar, and writing. And I’d be bored out of my skull if it was. My job description of course is “English Teacher” but that’s only about a third of what I actually do. My job is really relational, which is exactly why conversations like this will always happen. My students want to know more about me (of course, there is the kid who thinks I live at school…literally…but that’s a story for another day) and why I want to know more about them.

As a result I’m forced to confront my perpetual state of “singledom” (regardless of whether or not I am or am not currently dating someone) or a regular basis. And that is trying.

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The door to nowhere at the Winchester Mystery House (Where I would like to send that question :-))

Because the answer is not simple.


Yes, I want to be married, someday, I think. Most days I want to be, I think. And yet…

No, maybe I don’t want to be married—I like my space—I like my independence—I like my life the way it is and change is…ah….ah…

But I do want to be married. I write Christian romances. Of course I am looking for that for myself so…

Yes, I do.

Of course, it’s not just my students who ask this, but they are the ones who ask most often.

The fact of the matter is, I’ve always pictured myself married by now. I’m not, but I’m not unhappy about it the way my 16 year old self thought I would be, so that is perplexing as well.

What I don’t want is to get married because it is what people expect. If I am simply trying to find a life mate because my society believes that I am somehow incomplete without a partner, then I’m not okay with that. I’m an individual person and I have an identity on my own without a partner.

Of course, the opposite is true too. I hate the idea embodying the extreme opinion where women are all about not getting married because marriage strips them of their independence. With the right person, marriage can add to your identity rather than strip it from you.

So, why am I not married?

I shrug or throw it back at them: Why aren’t you? I ask. Because they answer is all the same no matter what age you are (Maybe I’M still too young to be married…don’t call me old, children ;-)).

Do I want to be married?

Sure, under the right circumstances, I think we all do (even those adamantly against marriage would probably cave…haven’t you seen HIMYM?)

I love NOT Knowing…Do you?

I love not knowing.

Tonight at Bible study we talked about Sarah and Hagar and realized we had way more questions than we did answers and by the end we had come to realize that each statement ended with “but we just don’t know.” We can speculate, we can make educated guesses, we can provide evidence as support, but what we can’t do is know. And I love that. I thrive off it. I use it as an invitation to “suck the marrow out of life” (thanks for that tidbit Thoreau).

Because not knowing is a springboard to discovery and learning.

Nerd alert?

Well, maybe, but “I am what I am and that’s all that I am” (Props to Popeye for that one) and I won’t apologize for it. People are so afraid of not knowing things, but I think it’s beautiful and humbling. So why are people afraid of not knowing?

  • Not Knowing is Scary: when you don’t know the outcome to something, it can be terrifying. How did I do on that test? Will I have enough credits to graduate? Will my boyfriend’s parents like me? All of these unknowns can be terrifying, but there is a certain kind of beauty in them as well. Don’t get me wrong, I want to know the answers, which is exactly why I LIKE not knowing, because then I have a PURPOSE, something for which to search, to KNOW to experience.
  • Not Knowing is Intimidating: “What do you mean you don’t know?” Not knowing connotes stupidity, ignorance…but that’s not what it really means. Not knowing isn’t the same as ignorance; not knowing is in a perpetual state of ‘yet’. It’s an invitation to knowledge, not a label of ignorance that we should embrace.
  • Not Knowing is ineffable: We can’t describe the sensations that not knowing gives us—it’s upsetting, it’s frustrating, it’s freeing, but ultimately it’s what makes us human.

So I like not knowing, because it means I still have something left to know. As the Doctor himself says, “I don’t know…But that’s good, the day I know everything I might as well stop.”

And I’m certainly not ready to stop yet. Because who am I—who are we all? Might as well quote the Doctor here too…”The stuff of legend.”