Monday, July 15, 2013

The Patience of a Spider

I was sitting on my front porch a few evenings ago when I noticed a spider spinning a web between a curve in my railing. It had only a single strand, and it was slowly making its way toward the top. In all the time I sat there, it made it only about half way.


My wife and I married when I was in still in college, against her father's wishes that we wait until I had graduated. I was working two jobs and going to school full time; she had decided to quit school around the time we got engaged so that she could take a full-time position at a doctor's office, with both of us agreeing that she would return to school once I graduated. Instead, she went back during our first year of marriage and stayed until we had our son. During the course of that first year, we were met with familial problems and health issues for those we loved, and those issues, compounded with the typical difficulties of a new marriage, mainly learning to live with another person, someone new, made our first year of marriage more difficult than I had imagined. Part of me had hoped, maybe even expected, that it would be a blissful, romantic period, rather like something out of a movie, and sure, we had our moments, but it was in no way the bohemian, free-spirited, care-free life I had hoped for. And then we found out after only a few months of marriage that we were expecting our first (and only) child. The pressure mounted.

During our marriage, my wife often acted as the leader and voice of faith, telling me that we could do anything for a year. In a year, I'd finish school. In a year, I'd get a good job. In a year... One year stretched into two, two into three, three into four, until finally, a year ago this month, we decided for the first time to end our marriage. I suppose to say that it was the first time isn't entirely true, for we talked about divorce for three of the four years we were married, only officially splitting up for good last Christmas night. In our hearts and minds, both of us had played out the dissolution of our marriage, who would leave whom, how we'd do it, countless times, even after we reconciled briefly last August, but we never followed through with the decision for one reason or another. Until last winter. But over the course of those years, she'd constantly encourage me that it was only for a year, whatever it happened to be at the time. Financial struggles. Jobs we didn't like. She told me that we could tough out anything for a year. We just needed to be patient and diligent.

I graduated with a degree that I didn't really want, to do a job that I didn't really want to do. I wanted to teach college. I loved the atmosphere, the intellectual stimulation and discussions, the freedom. But I earned a degree to teach middle school students, a demographic I didn't believe I was truly destined to teach. So when I was offered a job adjuncting and running study sessions at a community college, I took it, no questions asked. It was closer to what I wanted to do, but the pay wasn't great. Better than bagging groceries, but not by much. So we struggled financially, our money problems only adding fuel to an already volatile situation. But we could do anything for a year. After that first year of adjuncting, I would get a full-time teaching job somewhere. Then one year turned into two. But during those two years, I made connections that eventually led to my first full-time position as a high school English teacher. I learned quickly, however, as I've mentioned in previous posts, that modern high school is remarkably different from what I had expected, and I found that I struggled and was often depressed from the environment in which I found myself. The fact that my landing a job that made me uncomfortable coincided with my wife leaving me for the first time only served to make the past 12 months the most difficult year of my life, a statement I don't make lightly. It was more difficult than the year that followed my mother's death; more difficult than the one that followed my father and stepmother's marriage,  a year of new people and new roles, of learning how to assimilate to a new environment, one marked by struggle and tension; for the events of this past year came at a time when I was in a position and of an age to more fully understand the effects of these events, a time when more variables were at play, and more lives were at stake concerning the actions made by those involved. And yet, as I sit here writing this, in the back of my mind, I hear, "We can do anything for a year." The past year is over, and I wonder where I go from here. I have an interview this week for two positions at a community college, either of which I  would love to get, and it seems that all of my efforts, all of my previous jobs, have led me to here, as if in preparation for either position. Wishful thinking? Maybe, but only time will tell. So I will wait and continue on, with patience and diligence. And regardless of the outcome, I'm far happier now than I've been in years.


Yesterday morning at church, I watched an eighty-two year old man be baptized. His name is Charley, and I'd heard over dinner earlier in the week that he'd gotten saved. I recognized the name when I heard it, though I couldn't put a face to it. And then when I saw him yesterday morning as he made his way into the water, I immediately recognized him as a man I'd seen countless times at church over the years. He was a regular attendee, and had I not learned he'd only recently accepted Christ, I'd have been none the wiser that he hadn't been a Christian all along as he sat in the pews week after week for all those years. Our pastor talked of all the people who had prayed for this man, prayed that he'd come to know Christ before he died; prayers that had been offered up for years by the faithful. Prayers of people who had prayed, waiting patiently, diligently, for this man to come to know a Christ who had waited and called just as patiently and diligently for all those years. Prayers of a people who never gave up because they loved this man.


As I sat on my porch the next evening, I noticed that the spider had woven a beautiful web. Patiently, diligently, it had not only made its way up that single strand, but had turned that strand into something magnificent. Something intricate. Something beautiful. All it took was time, patience, and diligence.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Under the Influence

I had a conversation with someone about a year ago in which I accused her of being a bad influence on someone about whom I cared. It was not the ideal time to be having that conversation—middle of the night, tensions high. Neither was truly in the proper state of mind to have any sort of intellectual discussion, one because of anxiety and anger, perhaps other issues and impediments to logical discourse. And I don’t remember much of what was said, but I remember one rebuttal being issued, and it has stuck with me: “How can I be an influence on her? I’m younger than she is.” That struck a chord within me, made me consider how our actions influence those around us, and what responsibility we have to our fellow man. And I’m not talking about Christian influence here, though there is definitely some carryover between being a good Christian influence and being a good human influence. I’m merely talking about our ability to affect those around us.

A short time after that conversation, I was sitting in a counseling session, talking about my dissatisfaction with and anxiety concerning the path my life had taken, particularly the fact that I hadn’t yet begun to feel at ease in my job. It was in there, in that counseling session, that I vocalized that maybe I had missed my calling in life, had veered from the path my life was supposed to take. The counselor looked at me and said, “You don’t think you can be an influence there? All of those students you come into contact with on a daily basis. You don’t think you can be used there?” I’m paraphrasing, as I don’t recall precisely what he said, but the gist of his message was that I was in a prime position to positively influence future generations, to affect positive change. I knew that, deep down, but I was so focused on the negative aspects of my life, a life that seemed to spiraling out of control at the time, that I had ignored the fact that I could make a difference for those I encountered day after day.

 But that point, that I could be an influence in more areas than just reading and writing, was one that I was reminded of last evening. All of my former students, high school and college, have my Google Voice number, and one of my students texted me last night to ask my advice. He is going through some major life changes and wanted to know what I thought he should do. He said that he had always come to me for advice at school, that I was a “pretty cool guy” and always gave good, intelligent advice. I was honored that, even though I’m no longer his teacher and will never be again, he still trusted me enough to ask for advice. I gave him my best, most honest answer and wished him the best.

But the conversation, brief as it was, made me start thinking about influence, particularly how to be a good influence and whether or not I am. I try to be one. I try to keep my temper in check and see the world from others’ perspectives. I have to admit that a lot of this, this learning how to think in a manner that is less egotistical, to think in a manner that doesn’t put me at the center of some tiny universe around me, comes from my reading and teaching David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement speech every semester for the past three years(which you can find here: When someone cuts me off in traffic, I try to put myself in his/her shoes, wondering if perhaps, as Wallace mentions, it is I who happen to be in that person’s way, whereas once I’d have been far more apt to cuss and flip the person off. That’s not to say my tongue doesn’t sometimes get the best of me and I don’t sometimes allow my road rage to flare up. But I quickly try to control my thinking when this happens, for not only do I believe this is the right thing to do, but also because I never know who’s watching. And who knows, maybe this calm reaction in a seemingly mundane instance will be noticed.


If someone had asked me when I was 18 or 19 where I would be by my mid-twenties, if I didn’t rattle of some pipedream of being Jack Kerouac, or being a musician, or owning my own cafĂ© and bookstore, I’d have answered that I’d be a teacher. The last possible answer I would have even considered as a possibility would be a divorced single father whose attempts at teaching seemingly failed. But I know I was a positive influence, in some way, to my students over the past three years, perhaps more so to my college students, but at both levels I was able to affect some positive change in those I encountered. I had countless conversations with students during and after their time in my class in which they thanked me for caring, for being there for them, for helping them, for not giving up on them when so many others had. And now I’m left wondering what comes next. I’m unemployed, looking for a job where my talents, whatever they may be, can be put to use for good.

Which takes me back to the start. “How can I be an influence on her? I’m younger than she is.” Never underestimate your ability to be a positive influence on those around you. It may be a smile at a stranger, or a seemingly innocent “How are you?” or any of the other trivialities we go through, those seemingly banal activities that make up the everydayness of every day. But people are watching. And if you claim to be a Christian, it seems people watch a little more closely, for better or worse. But this isn’t about Christianity, it’s about being a good person. A good influence. Here’s to hoping I am.