In Ephesians 5, Paul exhorts his readers to redeem the time, because the days are evil. Many other translations call it “making the most of every opportunity.” But I like redeeming the time. That phrase from Scripture has always struck me as poetic. Webster defines the word redeem as to free from what distresses or harms. What does it mean to redeem time? Can a time that had remained distressing in my mind be set free to play a beautiful part in my story? Can we return to memories we’ve tried to run from and let them be both a teacher from the past and strengths for the future?
I had to go to Harding University twenty years after graduating. I needed to see a Pied Piper show one more time, and I needed to see Dottie directing it. I needed to be the middle-aged mom I used to see walk those brick pathways. The funny thing about being young is you have no context of a life lived longer than yours, no experiential way to put yourself in the shoes of your elders. But when you’re older, walking in younger shoes is natural because twenty years ago, those young adults with life stretched before them were me. My classmates and I were filled with the future and only barely tasted the transience of youth.
I needed to see that space, that place, and that time with new eyes. I needed to redeem a time that I had unintentionally been trying to forget.
When I left Harding, I was relieved. Relieved to be unburdened from the homesickness, the depression, the spiritual confusion, the social anxiety, the utter loneliness, and the discomfort of being in my own skin. I wanted to race away from that place of dreams-not-come-true and look elsewhere for my future, my life. I was in such a rush to escape from anything that pained me that I didn’t ingest the miraculous moments that occurred there. Only recently have the memories found their way to the surface.
I settled into my chapel seat on a Thursday morning in September 2001 and heard whispers of some national disaster. The Harding student body sat in shocked silence as Dr. Burkes told us the unthinkable: The Twin Towers had come down. I was a junior, and watching those towers fall live on TV later in Sociology class caused reality to bend sideways. My heart, my innocent heart, couldn’t compute the images. Those towers, I knew, held innumerable precious human lives, and I’d just watched them be crushed.
Soon after, Dottie Frye would welcome me into Pied Pipers, a children’s improvisational theater troupe. My social anxiety had prevented me from auditioning during my freshman or sophomore years, though how deeply I wanted to. Kids plus theater seemed the conjunction of all that I loved, and I was right. When I saw my name on the list that named me a newly minted Piper, I felt like I might make it through this college thing. Late-night laughs in the dorms and Spring Sing rehearsals with my social club put some lightheartedness in my days, enough to propel me from dark valley to dark valley, anyway.
But when I became part of Pipers, the light started to outweigh the dark. My talent for theater poured into silly stories like Pierre and Polar Bear. We sang and danced at elementary schools and watched young faces alight. I still hid who I was inside and didn’t know how to let down the guards in my heart. But some came down just by giving love to children and doing it as a part of a team.
With much grace for my fumbling feet, Dottie also chose me to be a part of Spring Sing ensemble that year. This group was technically reserved for the fairly elite singers and dancers, so my presence there was a bit of a mystery (perhaps to more than just me). But Steve and Dottie Frye put all the aching and unity of 9/11 into that beautiful show. Pictures of the towers falling faced the audience in the Benson Auditorium as my host and hostess friends sang a rendition of “Let the River Run.” Inside me, I felt a depth of communion with the victims of our national tragedy. When the closing song of “Wonderful Journey” echoed in that auditorium, I had a small sense of being part of something I’d never really get to experience again.
And as the end of college neared, and disappointments and doubts continued to find me, I couldn’t find myself at Harding. Pipers was the place that reminded me who I was and who I could be: a me outside of myself, which made me my truest self. As my senior year ended with a Piper trip to England, such a load of light and experience, I knew something special was ending.
Because I raced so fast and so far from all that ached in me at Harding, I did not desire to return there. I didn’t even like to reminisce much, and reminiscing was difficult except for certain poignant memories because I truly blocked them from my mind. Though the best friendships of my life were born there, they were treasures to take out of that place, not to keep there. It was not my alma mater, it was a hard place of hard aches.
But my journey with God and Elliot’s continued influence on me has done something unexpected in this season of early mid-life. Maybe a season of reflection is normal in your 40s, or maybe it’s a typical progression of the journey of healing from trauma. My husband and I have moved through a season of bitter grief into seasons of unending busyness that finally gave way to a strange quiet. Right now is the first season in years I’ve had much mental or emotional capacity for the luxury of life reflection. Any of these reasons may be why I’m floating back to those memories for the first time in twenty years. Giving an opening to those repressed memories causes them to soar into light rather than the darkness that kept them hidden for so long.
Megan, Elizabeth, and I converged on Searcy on Good Friday this year. We walked its paths, smelled those musty buildings, and took in Spring Sing. I got to jump into a Piper song with Trey and feel the river of life’s current pull me back to simple but complicated days. I watched the shadow of a younger me briskly walk across that campus, hurrying to make it to class and hurrying to grow up.
We’re a sum of all the parts that have brought us to the moment we currently find ourselves in. When I saw them, I told Dottie and Steve, “Thank you for making a difference in my life!” I doubt they knew they did that. I was quiet when they knew me twenty years ago, so unsure how to be myself. I let the louder ones and the funnier ones take the lead. But I was accepted just as I was. Dottie created space for us big kids/young adults to accept each other and ourselves. She ended every rehearsal by looking us each in the eye and saying, “Know you are loved.” Wouldn’t the world be better if we ended each interaction with those words? Say them to someone today.
After the brief trip to Harding: I came home to a day I dreaded: April 9, the anniversary of the day I was hospitalized with Elliot. Like so many days surrounding Elliot, that day is burned in my memory. From that day forward, I got to lay in a bed and have 50 days of precious solitude with my boy inside my belly. It was the only time he and I really had. The bittersweetness of April 9- I can’t describe it. I can’t describe how much I still love and miss him. Every day. What can be redeemed in the time that makes me cry every time I really remember?
Valerie got baptized this year on April 9, Easter Sunday. That’s what. Do you know I picture Jesus and Elliot joyfully conspiring to put it on her heart to do such a thing on such a day? I like the word redemption because it doesn’t mean hard memories are erased, or wounds are magically healed. It doesn’t minimize the wrongness of my boy being gone or the monumental importance of his life. But new rightness can be added to the time I have left on this earth, and Elliot’s sister choosing to take her next step with Jesus is an embrace. It’s a whisper from heaven to my mama’s heart: Know you are loved.
A time of my life is redeemed, put back into a rightful place of importance. A day of my life has the redemption of light among the dark. Funny that I spent so much time in college looking forward, and now here I am looking back. The present moment is the only one I can live in, but parts of who I was and who I will become converge at this moment. I wonder what times Jesus wants to help us each redeem. I think, for me, the redemption of this Easter weekend is more than enough for today.