on math homework and mystery (a letter to preston)

Some of you know that last year, my friend Preston and I started pondering theology out loud in letters. He writes on Tuesdays, I write on Thursdays, and we wander through Gossip Girl and workloads and grace and mystery and espresso. Won’t you join us? You can read his last letter to me here.

Dear Preston,

First of all: MUMFORD. Mumford. MUMFORD.

Second of all: I’m still not over that Bon Iver concert. I can still hear Holocene echoing in corners of my day. I think it might be one of those concerts that changes you so deeply that you never shake it. It’s something about Holocene. The ache and the insistence.

You ask how we know we’re right, and we both know this: we don’t know. There isn’t a knowing. Not really. Not the way we wish, the way of tight logic or empirical plot points.

We know in all the ways you can’t quantify, the ways of songs that burst your ribcage open with singing, sign language that makes you miss a friend living far away, the sign of the Cross made on a Sunday morning in the ordinary way, and the violent grace of Friday night movies and solitude and wondering. We know the story by living inside it.

Tonight I remembered why I’d rather that – the uncertainty of living inside this story, the pull of doubt and the rush of reassurance, the twists and turns that makes us wonder if randomness and purpose really can collide. Tonight I helped my youngest brother with his math homework.

I haven’t done algebra in years, Preston. Most of this feels completely foreign to me, like a country I haven’t seen in years, whose language I can’t speak. I pick my way through letters attached to numbers and symbols, erased half of our family calendar on the whiteboard in my anxious left-handed scribbling.

I did it standing barefoot in the kitchen in yoga shorts. My brother stared into the book, eyes wide with fear. Math is never easy. Math is mystery. It’s things that mean other things and relationships described so carefully and precisely that one mistake, a simple one, and it’s suddenly ten steps later and your number is negative and six times what it should be. I think I cried before or after every math test in high school, convinced it was the end of me. I loved it and feared it. I wanted to be naturally good at it, like those people who could look at numbers and tell you how they are related and if you multiply numbers three and five by number 7 and square root and something… and something else… and see? They all mean this.

But tonight it wasn’t about my strange love/hate relationship with math. It wasn’t about whether I understood the logical precision. It wasn’t even about whether my numbers fit neatly into their prescribed boxes.

It was just about love.

It was just me in my yoga shorts and my brother with his wide eyes and tightly gripped pencil. Just a family whiteboard, smudged left handed scribble, the mysterious meaning of functions, and the knowledge that I was not supposed to go anywhere, do anything, be anything, but my sister to my brother. I wasn’t supposed to work on a blog post or read an intellectual sounding article. My whole self was supposed to stand in the kitchen doing math with my brother. 

Because this is the world God has made: where meaning is mystery, where we make families and live in them, where music breaks us open and sews us back up. Where you walk to the water listening to Mumford and I stand in the kitchen doing algebra.

And through it all is the story we can’t prove except by our hearts, which pour out love.

Grace, and peace to pour out more than you think you have,
hilary

2 thoughts on “on math homework and mystery (a letter to preston)

  1. “…the uncertainty of living inside this story, the pull of doubt and the rush of reassurance, the twists and turns that makes us wonder if randomness and purpose really can collide.”

    First, in your words I hear the HS whisper to me, again. ” Be there, Kim. Only there.” I am travelling to meet up with my best friend from college, tomorrow. There will be time to write this weekend, much needed, before 12:00 a.m. time. But I will not do so. I am to be there, all there, all the time. I know that deep in my gut.

    Second, that song, the Emma Louise one…Well, I made “my Hilary” listen to it, as a prompt…to write: prose, poetry or another pounding paean in song. Last night, she grabbed my arm and rushed me to the grand after youth group… her eyes full of the promise of the piece. “You have to come hear, this…this song. I cried as I sang it out of me.”

    It was physically breath-taking to hear it.

    As soon as she records it, I will forward it to you…

    I think we all have a calling in midwifery. Sometimes we are aware of the wonder our words, deeds and attentive love brings to birth. Sometimes, not.

    Maybe, you shared that song here for a reason or purpose I do not know…Maybe, randomness and purpose collided head on.

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