The backpack is two pounds heavier than expected.
“Take something out, and we will weigh it again,” says the tour guide, placing the backpack in front of me and calling out to the next person in line. I am about to begin a climb I did not request but volunteered to join as a “favor” to a friend. The request was benign: “I am taking my creative writing students to the canyon for a writing-intensive escape. I need another faculty member and thought you would love the canyon! You haven’t been there yet!”
That was three weeks and two pounds ago. Standing at the entry of our trail, preparing to “gear up,” I am questioning just how incredible this canyon truly is. A travel guide lifts my backpack, pressing on the top of it, shifting the weight in a casual manner. He identifies the problem: too many water bottles. In a quick motion he unzips the backpack, removes several bottles, and reweighs the artifact.
The water bottles are placed in the “this will not travel with us” bin. The guide explains that two pounds will feel like 10 pounds in a few hours. “The trail has areas of fresh water to refill canteens. Don’t worry. You don’t hike much, huh?” I shake my head and catch a glimpse of the sunrise that suddenly outlines the sketch of dangerous (but curious) trails ahead. “You probably don’t remember me,” says the guide. “I took an exam at the university a while back?”
We walk together past an entrance with a list of warnings. “Welcome to wonderland,” he states with a smile, walking ahead, pointing to the variety of trails I may choose to traverse.
I remember you!
Just like that, I enter multiple spaces and narratives.
The room is quiet, too quiet. I stand in a corner in the atrium and observe as students walk toward the auditorium door, scan their student identification cards, and wait. They wait for the red light above the door to turn green, confirming that the “system” recognizes the student, granting entry into the computer lab. Somewhere on campus a computer has determined that this student is in the right place, at the right time, and has submitted all proper documentation to take a graduate school entrance exam that will determine successful entry into graduate studies.
Today, along with three other colleagues, I will observe students’ progress on a screen in a separate room. The screen allows access to view every question a student answers in the next six hours: mathematics, vocabulary, science, and a writing sample. I represent the writing portion of the exam in case there are any questions by students or evaluators. As I take my seat next to a mathematics professor and friend, I glance at the “Proctor Red Book,” which outlines the questions for students by category. I point at the initial terminology on the pages of math questions:
extreme value theorem, Newton’s method, Riemann sum . . . I shake my head and admit the math section would be a guessing game for me. My colleague laughs and turns to the last page of the book where one of the writing prompts is located.
“Do we only wander through our tasks without contemplating how our presence affects other’s journey with God?”
“Do these students know who they are?” he points at the essay question. “This essay option is an autobiographical essay. Experiential material. That’s a tough one. How do you grade that? How do you give points based on someone’s life story?”
Suddenly the math questions appear simpler than I imagined. For in them there is a level of calculation, formula, margin of error, and correction not available in autobiographical writing “on the spot.”
“We don’t grade it,” I whisper. “We cannot evaluate someone’s personal story. We evaluate the process, organization, grammar . . .” I hear my voice trail off as I notice a student in the back row, head down.
Is he praying? Suddenly the screens light up. The exam has begun.
I look at the clock.
There is not enough time to write that essay, not as a student or a professional.
. . . there was a girl who wandered off and found herself in an unknown space, in a curious place, where all she could do to remember who she was required repeating memorized poetry. Her oratory, the language and organization of the poem, gave her the comfort of knowing who she was. Memory and delivery validated her identity. Until . . . she forgot. The poems became confusing and the delivery became difficult. The girl walked through a garden alive with funny creatures, unique characters, all the while learning and observing so many new things that the original content, the language, the poetry, was no longer intact (or accurate) in her memory. When the moment came to identify herself, Alice did not know who she was:
“ ‘Who are you?’ said the Caterpillar.
“This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, ‘I—I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’ ”
I cannot engage in any analysis or image of Alice other than the one I find in the original text by Lewis Carroll. A critical analysis of the book engages the complex, dangerous exploration of the nature of language, communication, and yes, philosophy. It is at the core of this book that my own curious mind—as a professor, a friend, a writer, a daughter, a chaplain, a sister, an editor, a Christian—takes a walk, a quick life review:
who are you?
Alice is not simply confused about her identity and presence in a new space; she admits to something very powerful: change. “I cannot go back to yesterday, for I was a different person then.”
2 I can relate to the reshaping of self in light of unexpected life situations. I do find Alice to be a bit braver in her understanding of the impossibility of going “backwards” when she is now a different person. Has anyone else noticed this difference?
In moving forward, often the things we have etched in our heart, memorized, carried with caution, may expand or shrink. The lessons we learn affect others. How does our change affect the relationships we care about: friendships, family, church? With so many changes in our personal wonderlands it seems wise to nurture the roots of faith, to remain grounded by them. Yet Alice’s words linger in my mind: “. . . I was a different person then.” How fragile or accurate is change in our daily lives? Do others recognize a different character in us? One that is exemplary? Or do we only wander through our tasks without contemplating how our presence affects others’ journey with God?
The first question encountered by humanity was not one of identity but of location. It was not a complex linguistic feat; it was a simple question with devastating realizations woven through each syllable: “Where are you?”
Of all the questions asked, this is one that is often posed out of curiosity and fear. Have you witnessed a mother call out to her child who is no longer standing next to her? When a response is not immediate, the mother’s tone and action change, quickly and passionately. There is a desperate, devastating transition of a human voice running through rungs of emotions: curiosity, anger, fear, desperation! “Where are you?”
These are our own human emotions we recognize. Our limited, human emotions. Consider how it must have sounded for the Creator, aware of the events that occurred, to walk into the garden and ask: “Where are you?”
“And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and [they] hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. Then the Lord God called to Adam and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ So he said, ‘I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself,’ ” (Gen. 3:8-10).
“…the joy of knocking on the sky, feeling the texture of faith for the first time; wandering in God’s wonderland.”
Compassion. Unfiltered, genuine compassion. A heart-wrenching extended compassion in which the omniscient Creator invites those created in His image to explain what has happened; the words narrating a terrible judgment of character, an error that will cost everyone present everything! Compassion toward a being that is now naked, vulnerable, fatally wounded; more than a ripple in the water, the weight of stone in this failure to obey has caused a cosmic ripple. Yet there is compassion: “Where are you?”
To this day I struggle with the same question of where I am and who I am, because the struggles are many. Because my memory is short-lived, and I forget the miracles passed, the promises written out for me. I negotiate the trails, passing gardens, deserts, and canyons, seeking, often not ready to admit that I already have what I am searching for! I just need to embrace it and demonstrate it: more compassion toward others.
What would it be like if we could avoid the lingering questions of identity by acts of compassion? What would it take to shake away apathy? How has it occurred that we often engage living the example of Jesus’ life and ministry and forget that compassion toward others is a vital part of that ministry? Do we simply assume loving one another demonstrates compassion? Or does compassion drive us to love one another? When my emotional and spiritual wanderings take me to the edge of the page, where I am asked to write out, speak out, acknowledge who I am by method of narrative and action, it is a bit frightening to acknowledge that today I am different than yesterday, but my faith walk continues to move forward, walking in grace, in one direction.
After eight hours in a small room, observing students work through examinations and signing documents to push the data forward, I am happy to walk out of the building. The weather is relatively pleasant, and the sun is just bright enough to invite a moment of respite at the university courtyard, an invitation to sit down and take in nature, if just for a moment.
In the courtyard there is a fountain. It is an old fountain that is subtle and poignant, perfectly placed between the science buildings and the teaching hospital grounds. I often wonder if this fountain “hears” less from those around it than it should, for it seems that nobody ever sits around the fountain or on the benches under the beautiful trees that line the courtyard. I have never seen a gathering of friends at this fountain or a conversation occurring around the monumental sculpture raised above the water.
The good Samaritan. That is the image in the middle of the fountain. The good Samaritan. In a place where science and health care are taught, this fountain offers wisdom in the form of art. It is not
just a structure; it is a strong statement. A reminder of what you cannot teach but hope to see students learn: kindness.
As I walk around the fountain, I make an abrupt stop: a young man sits quietly, staring at the pavement, hunched down, elbows resting on his knees and a backpack next to his feet.
I know you. You were part of the student group that took the exam this morning. You were the one praying. He looks up in surprise.
“How are you?” I ask. “You had a busy day.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he says, standing up. I shake my head and tell him I do not wish to interrupt his thoughts; he is the first student I have seen sitting there in the eight months I have worked at the university and lived in this new state. He tells me that he never has time to visit this side of campus but has a fondness for the fountain: “It’s inspiring,” he says, pointing at the images. “He knows where he’s going. He didn’t see a broken man in need; he just helped a stranger. Showed a little compassion, no questions asked.” We speak for a few minutes. He has a full-time job and goes to school full-time. As I wish him a good day and walk away, he calls out: “Professor! How long until I know what my score is?”
I explain that the exams are graded by a professional team across the nation who receives the exam electronically. The team never meets the student. It will be weeks before that team is done with the exam. He looks worried, so I change the topic for a moment and ask about his job. He works as a tour guide at a national park close by. He tells me how his job was an answered prayer.
“After high school I was not in a good place,” he says. “I had to spend some time in rehabilitation for substance abuse; my family and I were at odds. A friend of the family hired me for this job, no questions asked, at the national park, cleaning up some areas, and I started getting there early in the morning just to be alone and think. I started praying again. Got back into school, getting good grades, thank God. Things changed.” He looks away as if the last portion of his story is embarrassing. Noticing a pattern in his storytelling, I tell him that early-morning prayers are important and encourage him to keep the faith and remember how important it is to show kindness, “no questions asked.” He smiles.
“At my job there are some evenings when the stars are so bright, you have no doubt God is watching. I would love to reach out for one of them; I think it would be like touching faith. It’s like wonderland out there, compassion, no guilt. You just reminded me of that word, ‘compassion’ he says. “Maybe one day I can grab a star, keep it safe, and have faith with me all the time, all the time.”
A shining star of faith. No guilt. That sounds like a fine idea.
As I walk to my office I think about the fountain. Maybe it is not just a display of kindness that is demonstrated by the good Samaritan, but also compassion. I do not even
think about the word much on any given day. There are topics I think and speak about quite often: sacrifice, timing, prayer, wisdom, forgiveness. Why has compassion been long omitted?
Nature is a keeper of identity and time, filling the pages of our life passport with stamps of awe and appreciation for scenery too exquisite for words. As I watch the sunset at Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, unencumbered with longitude or latitude awareness, I stand at the edge of a small corner of the canyon, amazed at what I see. I am surrounded by awkward jutting structures that speak of careful architecture, precise stone cuts. I listen to the loud silence of nature. I have followed jagged edges for climbing in no straight line or form toward a higher space simply to witness “
this.” As my gaze slowly takes in the horizon’s details, there is simply no denying that “this” is inexplicable. Truly a divine wonder.
I see the deep-blue evening sky and stars slowly drip over the sunset canvas as the wind carries parting words of birds and places them at my feet, in small swirls of dust that linger and leave faint echoes of songs reverberating through towers of stone.
“What is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You visit him?” (Ps. 8:4). How appropriate that in this moment, just God and I, there is no question of who I am, where I am going, where I have been. At this moment all is well. My soul is at rest, my mind is not consumed by deadlines, language, appointments, or questions. I am simply grateful for the compassionate kindness of a Savior who cares. For all the blessings, the daily awakenings, the divergent paths, the limitless painted skies remind me of grace, compassion.
From the corner of my eye I see one of our travel guides gazing at the same sky. He reaches his hand out toward the skies, extends his fingers as if conducting an invisible orchestra of stars that play his song of laughter; the joy of knocking on the sky, feeling the texture of faith for the first time; wandering in God’s wonderland.
Dixil Rodríguez is an assistant editor for Adventist Review Ministries.