After Elaine prayed for me, there was a bit of a pause. I wasn’t sure whether she would start up again or if she expected me to pray, or if it was just over. She smiled before opening her eyes and saying, “I just got a picture.” The first of several visions Elaine shared with me that night. “I saw water… just… little fountains of water starting to shoot up—not to full height yet, but… does that mean anything to you?” It meant nothing to me. Thinking that she would be expecting something relatively deep, I made a conscious effort to leave my face unchanged as I started formulating some good old fashioned English Major bullshit about water (one of our most fertile symbols). “If it doesn’t mean anything, that’s alright.” My God, she can read me. “I just thought I’d ask…”
“I see the shoots of water as new things God is opening up for you. They’re just starting, but they’re there.”
I told her I’d look for the little shoots of water. She laughed quietly and said, “Ok.”
Less than ten years ago my father rented a high pressure water gun, the kind used to blast paint off of outdoor surfaces. We were in the front yard, but he needed to get something inside so he handed me the gun, saying, “Don’t touch the water. It could tear your finger off.” I touched the water, just grazed it with my finger. It hurt, but my finger remained attached. Triumph. I later asked my mother for help with the large blister that developed.
Having finished J. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy a few hours earlier in Heathrow, I pulled Stoner by John Williams out of my book-crammed backpack. It was a book whose cover caught my attention at Waterstones and Blackwell, two booksellers in Oxford. The cover of the new Vintage Classics edition being sold has three books stacked on top of one another. The blurbs on the back say things like ‘Stoner is a perfect novel,’ ‘A terrific novel of echoing sadness,’ and ‘democratic in how it breaks the heart… It is a triumph of literary endeavor.’ The brief synopsis says it is about William Stoner, who goes to the University of Missouri in 1910 to study agriculture but becomes a teacher instead, marries the wrong woman, leads a quiet life, and is rarely remembered after his death. In the past I read A Separate Peace and, more recently, Brideshead Revisited—both wartime novels involving university students. I loved Brideshead and liked A Separate Peace well enough, so I bought Stoner. By the time my flight touched down in Atlanta I had finished the book’s 288 pages. It was, as a dear professor of mine would say, “dreamy prose.”
Sometimes, in the evenings, he wandered in the long open quadrangle, among couples who strolled together and murmured softly; though he did not know any of them, and though he did not speak to them, he felt a kinship with them. Sometimes he stood in the center of the quad, looking at the five huge columns in front of Jesse Hall that thrust upward into the night out of the cool grass; he had learned that these columns were the remains of the original main building of the University, destroyed many years ago by fire. Grayish silver in the moonlight, bare and pure, they seemed to him to represent the way of life he had embraced, as a temple represents a god.
This passage is on the front end of Stoner’s love affair with literature, and more broadly, learning. The book so naturally describes how an education feeds the mind and the soul, increasing the appetite of both. The life of the lover is transformed into a small but necessary part of the life of the beloved. This is homecoming.
Looking back on my time at Oxford—that sounds so bougie—anyhow… Looking back on my time at Oxford I think I can say that Elaine’s vision was wrong: the water is more than beginning to bubble up. Opportunities abound, yes, and they have direction and incredible velocity. Anytime I actually reach for the water I feel the burn that tells me there is more going on than I will ever be able to fathom, and that is both deeply unsettling and supremely satisfying.
I’ve been praying for discernment about the future, and I am finding clarification through my studies and relationships, and in my heart. After finishing my Bachelors in English Literature at Seattle Pacific University I hope to attend divinity school for a Master of Divinity (Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music, Duke, Princeton, Edinburgh, or elsewhere). If I am not called to the pastorate at this point, I will continue studying English literature (or maybe theology) in England, aiming for a DPhil and, if needed, another Masters along the way. Oxford would be nice.
So I have returned to Caledonia, Michigan, but I have returned with confidence in my ability to think and write. I have returned with a more profound understanding of my smallness—but, because I am small, I know there is a place for me.