I never really had grammar classes in elementary school. I learned parts of speech from playing Mad Libs and then later on from taking Spanish classes. I never had to diagram sentences and have no memory of learning about where the comma goes when you’re using quotation marks before high school.
I read a lot and wrote a lot, so maybe our teachers figured we’d just pick it up. I don’t know, really, but one little punctuation mark that I never really became comfortable with was the semicolon.
Left to my own devices, I will never use a semicolon. It’s true- you can look back through the blog archives. I doubt I’ve used one in every ten blog posts, and the ones I have used may not have been used correctly. I clearly favor the dash and the comma.
My freshman year of college, all of the freshmen were required to take one writing intensive course (which I never would have taken otherwise and I am so thankful was a requirement). There were hundreds of “writing intensive courses” to choose from and I ended up in one titled, “Believers, Fanatics, and Fundamentalists: Religious Repression in World Literature”.
You can’t make this stuff up.
I actually loved the class. Our professor was in the English department and really knew his stuff, and was fantastic at leading a discussion rather than lecturing. There were maybe 10 or so of us, all freshmen, in the class, and we were still on our high horses coming out of being the top students in our respective high schools.
Our first paper was assigned fairly early in the semester, a reflection on one of the many books we read. I dutifully read the book, wrote the paper, and prepared to turn it in when the professor emailed the whole class to say that he had decided that we would be turning in a mandatory rough draft, having a (mandatory) meeting with him to review our papers during office hours, and turning in a final draft the next week.
This felt like a colossal waste of time to me (and also the only time I ever went to a professor’s office hours during my entire undergraduate career), but I submitted my “rough draft” and showed up to his office hours a few days later, fully expecting a glowing review and a few clarification questions.
We exchanged pleasantries and talked about how freshman year was going for me, and then he pulled out my paper. There were lots of tiny red circles on it.
“So, Rachel, tell me. Has anyone ever taught you how to use a semicolon?”
He went on to give the shortest and most effective grammar lesson I have ever sat through.
First he told me that dashes have no place in an academic paper. This still breaks my dash-loving heart. It also explained all the tiny red circles.
Then, he said, “You use a semicolon when the sentence could be done, but you’re not finished yet. With a comma, no one expects the sentence to end there, they know there’s more to come. But with a semicolon, you could have put a period, but you’re not ready for that quite yet.”
Semicolons still don’t come naturally to me. The first draft of any piece generally doesn’t involve any, and it’s only in the edits that I manage to remember to exchange some of my dashes and commas for them (which explains why my blogs rarely have any).
Faith is the semicolon in my life story.
I need more of it than I use in the first draft. Often, I insert end marks instead, believing something is over that is still being worked out. Looking back over my life, though, I can see that what I once thought was the end was actually only a placeholder- that there was resolution coming in a way I could never have anticipated.
It’s my year of abiding, and already that hasn’t meant what I thought it would. God has been doing in me a work of looking back, of editing out the periods and putting in semicolons and discovering that the end of my story isn’t written yet.
This week marks the beginning of Lent, and I’ve had more time than expected to reflect and prepare as an ice storm has forced my whole city inside for nearly a week. I read this beautiful reflection from Kelley Nikondeha on Ash Wednesday:
“…It occurred to me that maybe fasting isn’t for them this season. Maybe when we are already pressed, already frayed, already suffering or crowded right next to it – foregoing a cup of coffee or a chocolate bar isn’t what we need. We already know we are bent low, we know we hunger, we know we are but dust.
Maybe in these times we hear the One who reminds us that his yoke is easy, not another heavy burden, not the straw to break our back. I think I heard his voice in the cathedral that Ash Wednesday, telling me nothing more was required of me in that time and place. His yoke is of a different sort, and I am ever learning the lighter rhythm.
However, there are times I need to be reminded of my mortality. I can get carried away with life and forget that I have limits and pride that must become less so God can become more. Fasting recalibrates me. It becomes an invitation to let go, to feel the ache and stand in solidarity with the suffering ones. Fasting reminds me I am dust.
Maybe you need to be reminded that you are dust today. Maybe you already know. Either way, Lent is upon us.”
I don’t know what season you are in. Perhaps you already know you are but dust, and perhaps you need to remember it. But do not forget- if we are all but dust, it is because there is One Who Is Not, who brings life to dry and dead places.
This Lent, I am giving up doubt, because I am but dust and He Is Not.
I’ll be looking back at places I thought were done and dead and looking for the end of the sentence, editing out periods and putting in semicolons.
40 days of trusting that God has been faithful throughout my life seems like the most appropriate preparation for Easter I could do. I’d love for you to join me.
How have you seen God redeem and complete the parts of your life you thought were finished? Where could you go back and add semicolons in your life story?
Photo by Tom Magliery, via flickr.