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Friday, April 24, 2015

For the Pioneers

The April day is chilled with the reminder that it is early spring, not early summer, and so the air still carries the last vestiges of winter. Late afternoon sun casts a speckled stage for tree-lit shadows to waver and dance on the deck outside. I'm in Virginia, far from my alma mater in Wisconsin. I'm watching tree seeds whirl from the branches and bury themselves in the fresh-cut grass. I'm marveling at the miracle of how God designed it. Death, burial, rebirth. Like seeds. Like life. Like people. Maybe like schools, too. I can hope.

There were relatives who questioned my decision to attend Northland. And there were winters when I felt my nose hairs freeze and my toes go numb when even I questioned my decision to attend Northland. But I can't deny that God did something in me there. A string of somethings.
If Tennyson is right, "I am a part of all that I have met," and Northland counts in there for five years of direct influence.

When I arrived as a freshman, we were a Bible college. When I graduated, we were an international university. I came with the understanding that I would wear a skirt to class every day. The day before I graduated, I wore jeans to my last exam. The changes weren't just political, though. They were personal too. I registered first as a math major, but my diploma marks me as the owner of a B.S. in English Education. I arrived alone, terrified of leaving my one best friend in Virginia. Today, it would take only a look at my phone history to see the names of a dozen or so girls scattered across the planet with whom I still feel an ongoing sense of community. It was messy and complicated and it shook my foundations in so many good ways. I wouldn't trade my Northland experience for anything.

I've spent the week in part watching the reactions of friends, teachers, current students and fellow alumni through social media. Like children realizing that we've been watched at play this whole time, we all felt a sense of awkwardness, I think. The sense of having security ripped away. We have enjoyed ourselves immensely! There was nothing to be ashamed of. We are glad that it should have been what it was and that it was valuable. And we only want it to go on. Though some of us graduated and moved on, we didn't want it to stop. We wanted the Northland Heart in its diversity and beauty to be a timeless thing. And it is. Though it will appear in different names.

Though it marks the end of a bit of myself, I can't reject the natural grief. It was unique. It really happened, and I'm thankful I got to be part of it. Others will commiserate, be sorry, say nice things (or raise their Pharisaic noses in legalistic "I told you so" arrogance). But they did not walk those dorm hallways in slippers to ask a friend for tea. They did not risk frozen eyebrows and frostbite to hear the next thrilling Romans lecture. They were not around to hear the announcement of a study abroad program. And they won't necessarily understand the weight of the question, "I'm going to you need anything?" Further, they did not sense the spirit of the study body rallying together in crisis, very like a family, the year we heard of Dr. Olson's resignation, reinstatement, and second resignation.

I feel that I have little to add to the conversation that would be constructive. Opinions abound.
We hurt. We wish. We want. We feel. And God will be God, and the world will go on. We have our memories and the sweet fellowship of the friends He gave us there. Nothing is wasted.
The news of Northland's plan to close after this year's commencement shocked us.
We are reeling from the blow. But we are linked together.
Even if we weren't on campus at the same time, we are Pioneers.
Let us live up to the name.

The sun never sets on Northland alumni. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015


Michael O'Brien wrote the only book I have read more than twice. Toward the end of his life Josip, the main character, meditates on the odd things we remember while seemingly important things fade from memory altogether. I've thought on this a lot lately. Especially in regard to this little episode:

My high school chemistry teacher stands at the front of the lab wearing a collared shirt and a long khaki skirt that buttons up the front. I'm restless, my legs swinging a from my perch on a lab stool near the back of the room as I try to ignore the ever-present odor of formaldehyde that lingers no matter how well classes clean up after dissections. 

The teacher has been gesticulating about the difference between a suspension and a solution. Though a few of the students have already given up the fight, their foreheads having discovered the solace of the black, slate tables in front of them, I am proving their taunts of my nerdiness to be true with sustained effort to pay attention. Scientific words and categories fly through a complicated thought maze in my head seeking a landing pad. 

Liquid, solid, gas, solution, suspension, colloid, dispersion... 

I am frustrated with the labels. I didn't want everything to have a category.The world is too big. Science too small. Some things are in between. Some things are mysterious. 
A few moments more of fuming until my hand can't be restrained. It shoots up through the fusty air like a tower rising from the fog. 

"You have a question?"

"Yes. I want to know...what about things that don't fit any of these categories? What are they?"

"Um....what do you mean? Do you have an example?"

"Well. What about things like...well...things like...mayonnaise?"

The fragile skin around her eyes squeezes tightly under the weight of her furrowed brow. I'm fascinated by her face. The lines on it scrawl patterns of math and chemistry that look to me like trails to worlds with inhabitants that speak an unknowable language of numbers and data. Though it terrifies me, I respect her as one who has lived among those aliens and learned their ways.
"Well...that's called an emulsion." She tosses the word in my direction. It lands sloppily on the table in front of me, oozing and gelatinous, staining my textbook. I grimace. She smiles and continues the lesson, her face cleared having neatly translated one more phrase from the alien tongue for her students. 

I test it on my tongue. I hate how it drops thick blobs of mush at the back of my throat before squishing forward through my teeth. Emulsion.  Gross. Scientists are probably not linguists. They are certainly not hedonists.  

That was nearly a decade ago. But I am still thinking about mayonnaise. I am still spreading it on the bread of my sandwiches with some measure of contempt. The words "emulsion, suspension, emulsion, suspension..." repeating in my mind, searching endlessly for resolution and waiting for a day when everything is given its proper name.