On the Power of Vulnerability

Like most of us in high school, I worked very hard to project a certain kind of persona that I wanted people to associate with me. In my case, it was the has-it-all-together-perfect-student-perfect-person. I’m a pastor’s kid, so there was already the foundation of pressure to appear a certain way and be analysed for your mistakes (pressure that came from society and myself, NOT from my parents who are amazing). Basically I sauntered through high school, getting great grades and having tons of friends, but none with whom I was actually close because I never got vulnerable. Ever. I gave out tons of advice when people were vulnerable with me, but I never delved deeper than ‘oh I wish my English mark was a titchy bit higher’.

And for a while, this worked. I got a reputation as ‘little miss perfect’ and you know what, I loved it. But after years and years of putting on a ‘nothing phases me’ face, I got tired. Really tired. By this time I was in grade 12 and applying for a massive university scholarship that was almost full ride for my BA and BEd. Suffice to say, it was a big deal and I put a ton of work into the application. I even had to drive down to the city to take this massive general knowledge exam. Oh and did I mention my older sister won this scholarship when she was at university? No pressure there at alllll.

I didn’t get the scholarship. And looking back, I am so grateful. I recently met the girl who did, and she has to work insanely hard to keep it. The grades it demands means the stress is pretty heavy. But at the time, I was really disappointed and it was the first time I’d ever really failed at anything. Sure I failed at little things, like not placing in sports events or messing up a project and having to start over, but nothing big. Certainly nothing $50 000 big. This feeling was pretty new to me. It helped that I had never really tried anything I didn’t think I could succeed in.

Around this time, Easter came and went. I attended a Catholic high school, so it was observed in my Religion class. As part of our celebration for it, my class went down to the chapel at the beginning of class one day and sat in a circle around a wooden cross. Now my faith is the core of my life and my relationship with Jesus supersedes everything else, but I am not big on religious routines. My church is very non-traditional in that respect, so I saw the cross and grimaced, already preparing myself for an hour of boredom and cheesiness.

My teacher explained that each one of us would get a stone, and that when we were ready, one at a time we all had to talk about something in our lives that was not good, something we’d done or said or a bad habit, and place it metaphorically on the cross as we physically placed the stone. ‘Classic religious symbolism’ I thought to myself as I tried to come up with something I could say that would technically be something bad in my life but that wouldn’t actually sound too bad (it felt like preparing for the ‘what is your greatest weakness’ question at an interview). People started going up and saying little things, nothing too major. I put it off and put it off and when there was just a couple people left I cleared my throat to start.

At the time, I just thought that I would tell a good, censored version of my scholarship story and be done with it. But as I started to speak, it came out completely differently. Without even meaning too, I started talking about how I set these standards and pressures for myself in every area of my life and I constantly force myself to adhere to this perfection status. I talked about the scholarship and started crying when I got to the part about not getting it. I ended by saying how I know that my family, friends, and God love me the way I am and I don’t need to be perfect and so I’m laying my stupid standards on the cross.

What happened next was where it got good. Almost instantly, the presence of God was in the room. It’s not something I can really explain or ‘prove’ but it was powerful and real. And all of a sudden, people were asking to speak again and sharing some incredibly personal, difficult, and deep problems in their lives. We were changed from this awkward crowd of 17 year olds who were waiting out the clock to a group of vulnerable people sharing and supporting each other through each of our individual trials and suffering. To this day, it is one of the most spiritually powerful moments in my life, and I believe it happened because I finally opened up and allowed myself to be vulnerable.

Now, I am in no way taking credit for what happened. The Holy Spirit did all the work, even in bringing up those words inside of me. But I let him. I was vulnerable and real and that allowed God to work through me. Everyone who was there, even the staunch atheists, noticed the change. For weeks afterwards, we were still talking about that afternoon in the chapel. A few times we convinced our teacher to go back but it was never quite like that first time.

That was over 3 years ago now, and I still struggle with vulnerability. Old habits die hard, and sometimes I like staying safe inside my shell with my full armour of ‘perfection’ on. But I’m working on it, or really I should say the Spirit is working on it with me. So I encourage anyone out there who shies away from vulnerability like I do, to step out. Even in small ways at first (like a blog post!!). Because the power of God works through vulnerable people (look at Moses! That dude literally told God face to face he didn’t want to do what he was asked because he was scared of public speaking) and on top of that, the relationships you can build when you are vulnerable with someone are so incredibly better than the surface ones. Sure, everyone thinks you’re perfect but no one really knows you. And being vulnerable, as scary as it is, is so incredibly worth the courage it takes to step out in faith.

“For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” 2 Timothy 1:7 ESV

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Book Review: “Never Let Me Go”

I did it! I finished a book on my Summer Reading List (to read the full thing, check out this post). Hurray for me. Here are my thoughts on Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

Overall, I really liked this book. Set sometime in futuristic England, it follows three young clones Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth as they grow up, face several life transitions, and eventually face their ends as organ donors. It’s very different from usual futuristic dystopian novels (in my experience) because it’s not about the overthrowing of the system.  None of the characters ever attempt to change their society, and only a few make meagre attempts to change their personal fates.  The reader is just expected to accept that in this future, England cures all diseases through growing and ‘harvesting’ clones, and this is accepted by everyone in society. The focus of the book is not on the dystopian system itself but rather the system is used by Ishiguro as a tool to explore the novel’s themes. So don’t expect a Hunger Games-esque revolution, because it doesn’t happen and that’s not the point.  I found this a refreshing new take in the genre of dystopian fiction.

The entire book is from Kathy’s perspective and the narration style is very casual.  It’s like Kathy knows you and is casually telling you her life story. She constantly references things she is planning on eventually telling you, jumping back and forth between her present and her past, sometimes inconsistently just like when a person is telling a story in real life.  I thought I would be irritated by this, because you have to pay attention and sometimes it takes a second to remember what she’s referring to or to keep track of her various digressions.  But in reality I found it engaging and liked the familiar feeling of being told a story.  It’s also important to pay attention because everything Kathy says is important whether thematically or to the plot; even when it just sounds like a random digression, it’s not. Ishiguro is very purposeful and has a reason for every conversation and statement.  The narration style lends itself to this as Kathy can just tell the reader the important stories, and skim over chapters of her life that are not eventful.

Throughout the novel, I found myself trying to understand what Kathy’s point is. She seems to be telling the story of her life for a reason to explain something to her listener, but it’s not clear what that is. And there is no big finale finish where everything is explained.  In the final scenes a measure of the clone system in explained, but why she’s telling the story is never laid out. Again, I thought this would irritate me but I actually liked it because it means every reader can glean something different from the story.

For me, the novel is about not really about Kathy at all-it’s about Ruth, and her reaction to the world around her. Ruth is extremely manipulative, the leader in her group, and the assertive one who attempts (albeit misguidedly) to throw herself and her friends into the successful popular group.  I saw Ruth as just a girl trying to succeed in the only way she knew how, which basically comes down to manipulation.  She constantly lies when it suits her, usually to portray herself as popular or special and worthy of attention and praise. Kathy is her closest friend, and puts up with a lot of mistreatment but recognizes that Ruth thinks she is helping Kathy, not hurting her.

I think we are all Ruth, or at least are in danger of becoming her. In our money-obsessed society, people are taught to lie, cheat, and steal their way to create a persona of success, wealth, and popularity.  It starts in the schoolyard and continues on until you look back one day and, like Ruth, have major regrets about the way your actions have affected others.  We all do this, whether in small ways or big ones. We portray ourselves a certain way in order to get people to think of us in that way which we hope will then lead to people accepting and loving us.  Through Kathy’s observations, Ishiguro highlights this behaviour and how ineffective it really is-Kathy is always seeing through Ruth’s disguises and by doing so reveals her to be the opposite of how she wants to be perceived.

 

Of course, as I said earlier, someone else could read this book and get something completely different out of it-that’s what makes it a great novel. Other themes could be coming of age, fate/destiny, death, the consequences of our actions, love, revenge, education, sex, or even medical commentary. Whatever strikes your interest, this book is a phenomenal and easy read and I highly recommend it.

 

‘You’re Studying What?!’, or, How to Talk to Postsecondary Students About Their Futures

This week is my final week as a student teacher teaching English to 14 year olds at a local high school.  I’ve been there for 7 weeks, and it has been one of the best and most affirming experiences of my life. I have known I wanted to be a teacher since I was 12 but this experience of actually teaching has confirmed that this is what I am meant to do. I loved every second of it, from the lesson planning to the marking to the answering questions at lunch to the attempts to get the class clown to finally shut up and listen. I love it I love it I love it.

I can deal with the ups and downs of teaching teenagers Shakespeare all day long. You skipped class and expect to hand it your work late? Let’s talk. I have to teach a poetry unit that features as diverse a group of poets as possible to a bunch of kids who don’t care? Let’s get googling. My marking pile is so high I have to stand up at my desk to talk to students who approach me with a question? Looks like I have a busy evening ahead.

I can handle these challenges and more because they are exactly what I signed up for when I applied to teacher’s college.  Every job has pros and cons and the day I decided to become a teacher I also decided to put up with whatever that means, good or bad.

The biggest challenge has nothing really to do with the education system at all. It’s everyone outside of it.  Specifically, the people who love to look on from the outside and ‘say it like it is’ (ie. ‘I’m going to be rude then laugh at the end of it so you can’t get mad’).

90% of the time when I tell someone I’m getting my teaching degree to teach high school English and History, I get some sort of variation on the reaction ‘Ohhh…good luck getting a job’, usually accompanied by a patronizing tone of voice or a stifled sneer.  Once a woman laughed out loud derisively directly in my face.

I live in Ontario, Canada, and right now there aren’t that many jobs in a large portion of the province.  Basically, ten or so years ago the government thought the Baby Boomer teachers were on the cusp of retirement so they offered them great retirement packages and opened wide the doors to teacher’s colleges.  BUT the Boomers never retired, so all those fresh new teachers came on the scene expecting jobs that hadn’t emptied and created a glut that is still getting sorted out. So yes, if I stay in Ontario it will be difficult for me to get a job right out of school. And yes, I’ll probably have to substitute teach for a few years.  And with the economy the way it is right now, a lot of people in every discipline and profession are experiencing a lot of the same struggles.

Because I’m in university, I have a lot of friends studying obscure and impractical things like Celtic Studies or 18th German Literature and we all joke together about our future unemployment. But you know what, at the end of the day we are all sacrificing A LOT  of time, money, and ourselves for the choices that we have made so that we can study what we are truly passionate about. And we know what the job market is like without every person over 30 who entered the job market easily at a time of growth reminding us sternly as if it’s somehow our fault. I believe that God has a plan for my life, and that he is my ultimate provider, which includes my future employment.  But I’m imperfect and not immune to fear, and I have so many friends who don’t share the hope we all desperately need that I cling to during difficult times.

 

The moral of this story is that if a young person comes up to you and tells you what they are studying or what they want to be there is never never never ever a reason or a need for you to criticize their choices unless you are their parent/guardian or are paying for it.  Trust me, we know what we are getting into. We’re the ones facing the mountains of debts and bills we have no idea how we will pay. Please don’t be the person who makes fun of me for pursuing my aspirations and my attempts to help make the world a better place. Choose to spread hope and support and positivity, because we know exactly what we’re facing out there and it’s scary. Don’t just remind us of the problem, help us find a solution.

‘I Rise/I Rise/I Rise’

Maya Angelou died today. And I thought it would be pertinent to share my experience with her work.  She’s been on my ‘To Read’ list for ages but I’ve just never got around to actually picking up one of her books; I have, however, read some of her more famous poems and loved them all.  “Still I Rise” has special meaning for me.

Flashback to 2011, a terrified 18 year old me moves into my very first dorm room in a massive city 3 hours away from everything I’ve ever known.  I remember snapping at my Mom as she tried to help me unpack a little because I knew the longer she stayed the harder it would be to say goodbye.  So I gave her and my Dad each a quick peck on the cheek and they were gone.  I headed to the floor common room for orientation and my floor Don starts by welcoming us all and declares she start the year by reading us a poem. I inwardly rolled my eyes at what I thought was going to be silly sentimentality.  This is what she read:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you? 
Why are you beset with gloom? 
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken? 
Bowed head and lowered eyes? 
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you? 
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you? 
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs? 

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise. 

 

In the face of a really emotionally difficult and scary time for me, Maya Angelou’s words filled me with a sense of power, determination, and agency over my life. And while in no way can I relate to the discrimination, suffering, and intergenerational trauma housed behind these words, I knew that if she could face the world with such confidence, so could I.  That was the beginning of one of the best years of my life and the memory of sitting in that crowded common room feeling like I could conquer the world is one of my most precious and treasured memories.

 

Rest In Peace, Ms. Angelou. Thank you for your life.

Here We Go…

My older sister has a fairly popular blog. A few years ago when she first started posting, my younger sister and I secretly rolled our eyes at what we thought was a kinda lame phase. But as time passed and our nephew Joseph was born (which translated to many blog posts with adorable pictures) I began actually giving Katie’s blog the time of day. For the most part she blogged about fashion and her outfits which didn’t really interest me that much, but she would also occasionally write down some thoughts about her life or life in general, experiences she had, poems or songs she wrote, etc. And I realized how narrow-minded I had been about this whole blog thing, and how cool a creative avenue it really is. I now read almost everything she posts…not just the Joe pics (though they remain my favourites).

Anyway, a few months ago a lovely friend of mine suggested that we both blog this summer as a creative writing/something to fill the time project.  She’s big into cooking and I’m big into talking about myself (haha) so I thought it could work. I took a few days to think it over seriously and pray into it and here I am.

So. Here are my thoughts about this blog.  It is starting as a summer creative outlet, but if things go well and I enjoy doing it I’ll continue into the school year in September.  I have absolutely no allusions that it will be read by anyone (I might not even tell my family about it) but it would certainly be really cool if someone did.  I plan to blog mostly about the world of literature and English education as they are two things I am very passionate about. However, I will probably also occasionally write about something that’s on my mind/happening in my life. Because I’m a rebel like that. So here we go…

 

A Note On My Blog Title, or, The Part Where Rachel Gets Sentimental and Deep and Stuff:

I am notoriously bad at coming up with cool names for stuff.  I always go either too sarcastic or too mushy/sentimental. So coming up with a name for this thing was way harder than writing any of the posts will no doubt be. And I may change it over time, who knows…if I can come up with something better.

The story behind where A Soft, Strong Heart is from comes back to my Mom (as important things often do).  Flashback to my 15 year old self travelling to Ottawa (Canada’s capital city) for a week to take part in a really cool program where teenagers all over Canada get together to learn a little about the best country in the world. My week was themed Vimy Ridge.  For those who did not traverse through the Canadian educational system, Vimy Ridge was a really important WWI battle for Canada because our soldiers were able to capture and hold the Ridge when no other Allied country could manage it.  In popular thought, it’s considered the moment Canada really became our own nation autonomous in our identity from Britain or America.

Anyway, back to my story. Part of the week involved a trip to the National Archives of Canada to handle and read the original enlistment papers for soldiers who fought at Vimy. As my group went through our soldier’s letters home, enlistment papers, etc., I noticed a reporter from the CBC (Canada’s major broadcasting corporation) filming around the room.  Then, a group member started reading a letter which provided the news of our soldier’s death to his mother.  I lost it. Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll tell you I’m a weeper. I started crying right there in front of everyone and all of a sudden out of the corner of my eye I see a camera lens getting closer and closer. To cut a long story short (too late, I know) I ended up being featured in a 4 minute segment on the national evening news, much of which I spent crying.

When I got home, I remember talking to my Mom about what had happened and how embarrassed I was at being portrayed all over the country as this weepy teenager.  And my Mom said something to me that I treasure to this day. She told me that God had given me a soft  heart full of compassion and that he would use it to make a difference in the lives of suffering people. Now I can often be sarcastic and even a little judgy (see first paragraph) but I’m working on translating that into a more positive format. Ultimately, I want to use my sentimental, weepy, cries-on-national-television heart to help people.  But at the same time, I also want a strong and courageous heart, a heart that’s not afraid of struggle or pain but that pushes through for something better.  A heart with high standards, that reaches out to the lost without compromising what it stands for.  A heart like a man who died on a cross two thousand years ago to save me.

So that’s a little about me and what I want to do with this blog. If there’s anyone who’s actually read this far in, congratulations and as a favourite high school teacher of mine used to say, ‘May the moonbeams of a thousand midnights shine upon your toaster’

…don’t worry, I don’t get it either.