For the Brave and the Steadfast

I am, in essence, a be-er. I’ve been around the sun enough times by now that I know this about myself. My initial impulse is always to stay home, to say no, to plant myself on the sidelines, to wait and see how the thing plays out, thank you very much. When I dream of the future, more and more frequently I just think of Yeats’ poem “Isle of Innisfree” where peace comes dropping slow and evening’s full of the linnets’ wings.

I leave the pushing and the challenging and raising of voices loud enough to be heard even by those who don’t want to hear them to the fighters of the world. They can have that, I think. I’m not built for that, and I don’t want it.

But in the last month I had a large and sticky situation rise up. It was clear to anyone with two eyes in their head that without my asking this thing had fallen directly in my lap. And as I sat there for a few weeks with it heaving great shuddery, mucus-y breaths on my knees and occasionally baring its teeth, I understood that I needed to do what I never do—I needed to fight. I needed to take a few good swings and risk missing. I stood up, wiped the slime off my skirt and had a series of hard conversations where I pushed and I pushed. It wore me all out. So when I was certain that what I had to say had been heard, I retreated safely to my Innisfree to sleep and sleep the whole thing off. I went back to being the self I knew.

This is not the first time in my adult life I’ve chosen to get up and walk against the current. I’ve done it here and there before, but I can only exist in resistance for so long. I am not one of the perpetually brave. I soon run back to the hollowed hands which say, “The Lord will fight for you, you must only be still.”

And I don’t think I’m wrong, not really. Jesus didn’t spend most of his earthly life picking fights. In fact, he spent decades of it just making tables and eating with his family and praying and following the seasons round and round in their rotation. But when the fights came, the moments to push landed in his lap, he took them. And he fought in all the ways no one expected him to, all the way up a hill, onto a tree, and back down again.

So I think God’s world has a place, an important place, for both the fighters and the be-ers, the brave and the steadfast. But as I have been thinking about all this in the past few weeks, there are a few things the contemplative watchers–like me and maybe you–must remember.

Peace is not dead space. It requires cultivating, which, in fact, is a fight of its own kind. Even Yeats’ island retreat has nine neat bean rows. In peace, we must teach stubborn soil to grow, both the soil of the earth and the soil of our “great sloth hearts.” While we stay at home, we must paint beautiful colors loud and bake good bread and sing with all our might and dole out glasses of cool water. When I sit on the sidelines avoiding the tumult of grit and sweat and uncertainty, and pull out my journal to write a few disjointed words, I must not leave them there to shrivel on the page. I must take them home and add more to them and more, till at last they join up properly and I have made something I can call good. 

If I was formed, as I believe I was, to plant my feet deep but send my words out like lines, to pour my overripe little heart out onto a page from the peanut gallery, if writing is indeed part of my being, then my peace-time, my bee-loud glade, should be full of written words. If I’m not out fighting demons, I should be home with a pen in my hand, teaching castles to rise from stone.

2022 Retrospective

I started off 2022 by testing positive for covid, along with the rest of my family. But I was working a shift with an elderly client within two hours of getting back to Madison and testing negative. The tone, though I did not choose it, was set for the anxious winter of my discontent. I took walks in slate-colored snow that matched a slate-colored sky and wore through a pair of boots I’d loved for years. I made lots of French toast for Bonnie and tried to find shows on Netflix she would like. Sometimes I was successful, sometimes not. I finally finished the novel to my general satisfaction, and spent a few months querying agents on its behalf. Eventually I got fed up with the whole dang circus, but just in time to save my faith in literary dreams someone asked me to talk to an undergrad student who wanted to be a novelist, and he was so serious and earnest that my lungs filled with fresh air again. 

For days and weeks I sat on couches and listened to the interminable sighing of clients’ oxygen machines. I slid into another car on the ice on the way to work one morning and cried, not just because of the accident but because I felt that I was sliding too, away and away. My parents visited, though, and that was good. My mom cooked and cooked in my friends’ kitchen. Other friends brought me food and had me for dinner and I met Joy at a coffee shop sometimes. Also a friend of Abby’s gave one of the cheapest and best haircuts I’ve ever had.

Then after one of the hardest winters, came perhaps the happiest summer. It was a gift dropped in my lap just when I’d stopped waiting for such goodnesses. It began with a flying trip back to Vancouver for in-person graduation and the thousand hugs covid never allowed. The green of it all reminded me how to stand up straight. Back home in Madison, change was coming. Abby and Taylor were house-hunting in Indiana, fell in love with a house they call Big Red, but had their dreams crushed. I sat and held my client Phyllis’s hand as her breath labored its way in and out of her lungs a few hours before she died. I spent a while searching for jobs in Greensboro and realized, with slight shock, that I’m qualified for more than I thought.

Then I took a trip to the UK that I couldn’t afford and in no way regret. I went to the circus with my family and to parks and art museums—sometimes on my own. I gave a paper at Cambridge and choked humblingly at the first question from the audience. I stayed at a castle and toured an artist’s studio and made butter from cream and scrambled up the muddy sides of mountains ahead of friends. I felt both moody and at peace which are two of my favorite feelings. I came home to a renewed appreciation for Abby’s friendship which had housed and homed and fed me for the past year. It is not simple, but it is good. We took her babies to see my client Bonnie one morning in July.

Then fall came with alarming alacrity. And there I was back in Greensboro teaching vaguely familiar kiddos in very familiar hallways except this time I was teaching literature and I knew none of my co-workers. I realized in successive bursts that I love teaching and am good at it, but also that as far as some of my students were concerned, I was going to have to earn my stripes all over again. Eventually things fell into a rhythm. I went to a brewery with friends, sat too near the band, and played a card game. I worked on filling my new place with things, hung a canopy over my bed, and battled with College Board over getting my AP syllabus approved. I successfully joined a community group at church, rediscovered the wonderfully erroneous map on the basketball court at Lindley, had eight solidly pleasant parent conferences in a row, remembered how little I like spirit week, and let my freshmen make chaos on my carpet with acrylic paint. Regula and Mary Frances both came to visit, and I liked watched them in my childhood kitchen, chatting with my parents, disparate parts of my life coming together as if they belonged all along.

This year like, I suppose, all years before it, has been much. I ate brunch and taught poetry and got a large wooden chest upstairs all on my own. I argued with a 102 year old over whether he or I should carry the groceries and drove through WV in the midst of its blazing October leaves. I went to a retreat I hated and to one I loved. I ended up in the ER twice—once for myself and once for someone else. I walked to playgrounds, walked a farmers’ market, and walked a lot of hills. I visited two whiskey distilleries in two different countries, and neither time was my idea. I brought my mom pasta when she ran out and got hit by a bike while on the phone with my dad. 

I somehow managed to start both a writers’ group and a conversation club that meet monthly. When I wonder how that happened, I then remind myself that as an adult I’ve become the woman who keeps activities moving along at a birthday party which she is not hosting, and volunteers to be the timekeeper at a writing workshop and cut people off when their time is up. Those things happened this year too.

I have fewer philosophical thoughts than usual about this last trip round the sun. The one thread which I’ve found it easy to pick at and unravel is that so many things have brought me back to the beginning. My accomplishments are a varied collection of starts and restarts. I picked up paint-by-number and put one on my wall already. I got my first house plants (but also my first traffic ticket) and shoveled my first driveway. I entered a new decade and celebrated it with two very longtime friends.

Even though my writing has largely been lying fallow the last few months, other things long dormant have been poking their heads up from the soil. Within 24 hours of each other I accepted a job at Caldwell (this made me cry) and agreed to take over the lease of an apartment three blocks from where I grew up (this made me laugh). Now I have a picture of that day taped to my desk at work (because this makes me smile). Beyond those building blocks of life, in the cracks of my days I’m reading more than I have since I was a kid—rereads like Jayber Crow and P.G. Wodehouse and new things like Tana French and memoirs about people’s mothers—and also playing my cello sometimes, and cooking for the first time in years. 

All of these returns, these dances with my former self, are reminders that living my life faithfully does not require that I am capable or impressive. What is required is a willingness to step out onto the floating islands where the Lord controls the currents, to say, Yes, I will follow the Mystery, follow it as it takes me over Calvary and on and on all the way to the feast of all things made right. This trust is not easy, but as I watch the ghost of young Alice and her hesitating steps, I realize that it’s easier than it used to be. Perhaps because every year I understand the promise of that feast—and its host—a little more fully.

Last week, though still recovering from a bad car accident, my mom threw a Christmas party. Fifty people stuffed into four rooms and sang and drank and ate and talked. My brother squeezed past me at one point and said wryly, “Aren’t you glad our parents are so popular?” And then we went for a walk to see the lights and at one point a passing car slowed and someone yelled out of it, “WE LOVE YOU, MISS HODGKINS!” And while I don’t know who that was, it’s a worthy sentiment. I’m all for worthy sentiments. Heather comes to visit this weekend for a mini writing retreat, so I’m getting ready to shake the cobwebs off and chase some new lines of inquiry using words on a page. I’m ready and waiting. On Christmas day I got some very good books as gifts and went to church and ate the Mystery with the people of God—full with the richness of promise.

Christmas Past

In the past few weeks, I’ve talked to several friends from other places and times of my life, including two close friends from Regent who’ve been to visit me, one after another. We talked about much: vocation, biscuits, classes, dating, creativity, brick churches, teaching, weddings, travel, houses, memories, cocktails, and, of course, the world and its problems and how we would solve them if we were in charge but how we’re really glad we’re not.

And something struck me after a few days of long conversation. We spent plenty of time talking about mutual friends, but it’s been a few years, and I noticed that with the ones we’d fallen out of touch with, we referred to the relationship in the past tense. “She always told me…” “I always thought he…” “That was why I liked…” That sort of thing. We spoke of these people with deep affection and even loyalty—we still clearly cared—and yet there was this assumption that some of these relationships were past. If not exactly over, they were permanently dormant, frozen in time at the moment we’d last interacted.

Regula and I decorated the tree I bought on Black Friday, hanging it with ornaments I’d had packed away for years while I was off in Other Places, and I thought about the past and whether it was over or not. 

I live now in the neighborhood I grew up in. And from my bedroom, I can hear the trains as they go past. These aren’t passenger trains—this isn’t Europe—but instead cargo trains, almost interminably long. So when they come through, they take a quarter hour doing it and I lie in bed, blocks away, hearing them continually passing and passing and passing, both here and long gone, all at the same time.

This is the best image I’ve found in all my scrambling for how it is, that the then and the now, the past and the present can be separate pieces, but all a part of the same vast eternity with its overlapping waves. 

For how it is that every year we unbox the ornaments at my parents’ house to decorate, and there are all the ones we’d forgotten: Shakespeare and the Korean masks and the washing board and the fragile construction paper Santa made by small hands that are now large ones. But despite their age here they are again, waiting for us patiently, the same as always, just a little more loved.

Or how it is that, after a very long week, in church this morning we began to sing that Sandra McCracken song, “Come Light Our Hearts,” that always used to close the Advent service at Regent. And I closed my eyes, and time folded right in on itself back to 2019 and a crowded carpeted chapel, my soul remembering for the umpteenth how to “for him in stillness wait.” That memory and reality of those words woke up again, just like those friendships may one day.

Because the passing of time doesn’t matter much more than the passing of trains. Love will return again and again to reassert himself.

The week after Thanksgiving I read “The Second Shepherd’s Play” with my freshmen. It’s a one act play about Christ’s nativity which used to be performed for groups of illiterate medieval peasants who were eager for a show. In it the shepherds bumble around before meeting Jesus, complaining about the cold and their bosses and stealing each other’s sheep, and all the while keep using oaths their Catholic audience would have been familiar with: “Deus” “Our Lady” “By Him Who Died for Us!” till any sense of historical timeline gets scrambled up in literary irony and slapstick comedy. And then the angels bust onto the scene right at the end, surprising the audience just as genuinely as they did those shepherds: “God is made you friend now at this morn!”

This play was performed every year. Unto them a child was born, just as he is to us, every year, here and now: the truth resurrected from its sleep in a cardboard box to announce itself just the same, time repeatedly folding back on itself to a single night thousands of years ago.

A Weekend

On Friday night I went to a big basketball game in the Caldwell gym. I’d forgotten how those things go to the core of me—the rumble of the crowd and its rising yells, the sharpness of the whistle and the basketball shoes squeaking on the floor, the smell of popcorn and heat and the hundreds of faces and the youth and intensity of it all and the sound of the buzzer. But most, I am taken by those kids on the court who struggle and slouch in my class, but who spring and leap and even fly with a ball in their hands. I’d forgotten how moved I am watching my students do what matters to them. I like to see them capable and eager and playing confidently to a packed house—it’s fuller than the version of them I usually get. I like being reminded. (I also like it when we win, which we did.)

Then yesterday afternoon I went to Walmart, which is notorious as place where one can observe a subset of humans who seem unable to fit into their clothes, read a price sticker, wash themselves, or exist appropriately within the world (or so that blog that used to circulate, “The People of Walmart,” would have us believe.) But as I navigated past little befuddled-looking family clumps in the home goods aisles on my way to buy curtain rods, we spoke gently and politely to one another, squeezing our carts through, despite the blasphemy of our ill-fitting sweats and unkempt hair. And I thought to myself—”We’re all the people of Walmart on the inside, aren’t we?” I mostly thought it because it made me laugh, but it’s softened my vision ever since. 

And then last night I went to the homecoming dance for a bit. I pinned my hair up like I used to do in college and wore my charity shop coat. We ended up having to turn off nearly all the lights to get the kids to actually dance, because with them on they just milled awkwardly in groups. But in the dimness, they finally loosened up and cheered and jumped and acted like teenagers. We threw glow sticks down on them during “Party Rock,” and they lost their minds as we intended. I got out there and danced a little with a few of the other teachers. I felt full. I turned to Leslie at one point and said, “You know, in high school, I would have been glued to a chair at something like this.” A student cheekily asked me earlier in the week if everything good happens before you’re twenty-five, but I’ve rarely been more glad to be thirty and not sixteen. If only they knew.

I’m grateful that things are not always as they seem they ought to be, grateful that I am frequently wrong, grateful that God comes riding in on his donkey with his bruisable body and his broken bread and his empty tomb and says, “No, actually, child, it’s entirely different than that.”

A Fall Teaching Entry

Here’s a thing I’d forgotten about my job before I came back to it. As much as I aspire to be (and usually am) in control of my classroom, hiding in its corners and quiet moments are delights and strange kernels of time which I could never plan, could never make, can only notice if I’m looking at them in just the right slant of light. They’re the oddities, the unclassifiable outliers, the secret gifts of teaching.

For example:

-The moment when we read Blake’s “I Saw a Chapel” and my group of boys actually listened to it. I asked them what they thought, and one of them said, “It’s weird.” I smiled because he meant it and also because he was right.

-Students who come and sit on my tall, soft stool to spin idly round on it between class times, sometimes to talk to me but more often to talk to each other. Sometimes I tell them to get off, but then bite my tongue and wish I hadn’t.

-How I passed out “Dream of the Rood” in translation from the Old English and had them read it in pairs with no outside guidance then watched, touched, as they drew bright pictures of the paradox of Christ’s cross, encrusted in both blood and jewels.

-The afternoon a junior came in and as he passed my desk ran his fingers absently over a turtle candle-holder I keep there, a gift from a student my first year. That turtle is even more beloved than it once was for having come such a long way.

-The map of Huck and Jim’s journey carefully traced onto butcher paper on my back wall, with a bright orange carrot drawn next to Cairo, IL, because the artist thought Cairo looked like “carrot” which it definitely doesn’t. 

-The desire to laugh and cry and burst with pride at the absurdity of it all while listening to a roomful of fourteen-year-olds stumbling in unison through the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales: “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, the droghte of March hathe perced to the roote…”

-Two boys who spent their mid-morning break in my room with heads down on the desks, covered by sweatshirt hoods, sleeping slumped right up against each other’s shoulders.

The thing is, the end of the first quarter has come, and with it, the love has hit. I hadn’t forgotten that the love for my students would come, but I’d forgotten the force with which this seemingly mild affection would barrel into my chest. This love, this concern for adolescent welfare, this enjoyment of the utter weirdness of their particular youth expands me and makes me grateful for things well outside its scope. I am grateful this week for voice messages, for Little Free Libraries, for Peter, Paul, and Mary, for counters to sit on, for crockpots and for sidewalks. I am grateful for that which gets us from place: for conversations, for seasons, for weeks and weekends, for growth which comes step by unusual step.

Acorns and Where I’m At

Fall break is over and I spent most of its four sunny days curled in various corners of my apartment as acorns from the trees above pattered onto my roof. The first time I heard the sound a couple weeks ago, it gave me pause. I wondered if something had fallen out of a cabinet or if it was raining or if someone was unlocking my back door or if the world was ending. Any option seemed plausible. But no, it was just acorns, cascading down like manna. 

I’ve felt tenuous the last few days, crying easily. So I’m going to scrape out the corners of my heart onto this page a bit and see if that helps. Bear witness if you’d like.

Last winter was very, very hard. I didn’t say so to many people, but it was. Sometime at the end of November (or maybe at the beginning of December?) life gave me one little nudge and I absolutely crumbled. For weeks and weeks I wept driving to work and back and listened to my heart thud in my ears as I tried to sleep each night. My thoughts were hostile, constant companions, barely letting prayer through their iron bars.

In March a kind friend convinced me to see a doctor, and slowly, like the sun coming up in the cold, I began to feel better. I got on medication and God was gracious in other ways as well. I am beginning to see how throughout the later spring and the summer he gave and he gave and he gave, lavishing healing on fields I had allowed to lie fallow for years. He writes strange and perfect stories.

I’m grateful for all that bounty, the relationships put right and bitterness turned sweet on my tongue. But in the last few days I’m beginning to understand that though he meant those good gifts—oh, he meant them as declarations of love and I must consume them as such—this healing was also a clearing of the decks. Because the humiliating pain which revealed itself by ripping through my gut in a streak of depression a year ago still lives, and it must be dealt with.

You probably have something like this yourself, the spot so tender you’ll calcify your heart to protect it, the thing you fear so much that you’ll build walls out of whatever is nearest at hand just to avoid looking it in the eye.

For me that thing is that many days I find it very hard to believe that Jesus loves me, that he finds value in me. I want to do the math, find the answer for how this could be, but when I figure the equation for myself, my own worth always works out to be nil. I’m baffled at how all his big promises and slow gentlenesses could possibly be intended for me. And often I end up sinking into little puddles of self-hatred rather than face the great salty waves of love.

So that’s me.

But like I said, the decks are clear now. That soft spot has been in the open air recently. At school I keep weeping in chapel programs meant for our teenagers, but which leave me frustrated and raw.

And the acorns keep falling, coming down in rivulets and storms onto all this churned-up, bare soil of my heart. The other day there was a great gust of wind while I sat in my big chair in my living room and they came pouring down for nearly a minute, as if all the acorns in the world had gathered in one tree to lavish themselves on my little house, a million and one declarations of love, demanding to be heard.

Anyway, the seasons are changing, softly, surely.

The Same But Also Different

I’ve been back home for about two months now. They’ve been some of the fastest and fullest months of my life. I was happy to be back and I am happy to be back, but the shine of it all has worn off a bit. I’m no longer turning to people who’ve lived here for decades and saying, “Did you know Greensboro had so many trees? It’s green here!” 

The discomfort of transition is settling in. I can identify the feeling, because I’ve dealt with it before—several times now. It starts in your gut and then if you don’t address it properly it leaks down through all your appendages till at last it comes spewing out of your extremities onto other people in the form of illogical irritability that no one in the room understands, least of all yourself. Best to avoid that.

At the heart of my transition-pains this time is the reality that everything around and within me is both deeply familiar and enormously strange, simultaneously entirely the same and completely different from before. So this is me addressing that. Properly.

Things That Are The Same:

-I’m living in the neighborhood I grew up in, the only neighborhood I’ve ever lived in in Greensboro.

-I’m teaching at Caldwell, the place my entire life in this town has centered around.

-My parents are still here growing their garden and reading their poems and inviting me over but requesting that I call before just dropping by.

-My Aldi is the same. I go on Friday afternoons just like I used to.

-My dear little Kia is still here. The time to replace it is fast approaching, but it’s seen so much of life.

-I’m at the same church I was at the year before I moved away, which is full of many, many familiar faces.

-I hang out with the same women on the weekends. We still plan girls’ night.

-Hanging Rock is still here, as is Cook Out and Krispy Kreme and the Goodwill on Battleground. All pillars of my adolescence. 

-And despite the passage of time, the little idealist who sometimes hopefully tap dances in my chest, who sketches out the biggest of dreams, is still alive and kicking.

Things That are Different, However:

-I’m living in my own place, all myself, and am fiercely interested in how the space is arranged.

-I sometimes worry now that I’ve become a cynic—something I think I’m still too young for.

-I’ve written a whole novel set in the place I’m working and sometimes I get the fictional world confused with the real one. Writing feels weightier.

-I schedule so many more phone dates now. (Because there are so many more far away people I love.)

-The clothes in my closet are 95% different (but, let’s be honest, the number of items is probably roughly the same.)

-My confidence level has risen, but so too has my guardedness.

-There are very few familiar faces from before in my classroom—there arose a generation that knew not Alice.

-Horse Pen Creek Road is four lanes now, which really threw me for a loop at first, but honestly, I’m four lanes now, so I guess I’m okay with it.

Basically, if you’re looking to pick my exact location out in all this messy paradox like I’m Where’s Waldo, you’ll find me balancing between the two extremes, same and different, laughing loudly and crying freely and sometimes just watching the quiet carnival of my life.

The Lines Love Comes By

A couple weeks ago I had a training course via zoom for teaching AP Lit. After it was over, I went out to my car barefoot with just my license and my keys and drove to my parents’ where I retrieved sandpaper, a stud-finder, and two containers of my mom’s gumbo. It was a warm, thick Carolina night, just the kind I’d missed deep in my bones for the last four years, and when I got home and climbed out of my car I could hear the rhythms of a drumset echoing through the trees. The sound came from a house I could not see, hands I did not know holding the sticks. I stood there for a few beats, listening, grasping the moment against my chest—as you do—my hands full of odds and ends and the gravel of the back drive biting into my soles. Then I went inside.

I’m happier to be back teaching than I knew I would be. I’m happy to have kids back in my classroom, I’m happy to be talking about books I love all day long, and to be doing it in a place which, despite the ebb and flow of time, is still very much home. Yet I can feel myself already sinking into the mire I often felt stuck in four years ago—the mire where my job is my whole existence. To have only my job as an outlet, even for just a month, feels as if I’m funneling my entire self through a few very small holes. I’m antsy. I need a place in my life where I can bust through a dam. 

Maybe I can blame it on that moment when I heard those drum beats coming through the woods. Maybe it was putting up a gallery wall in my hallway yesterday with all the pictures of my child self wrapping her arms around people I love. Maybe it was the sound of the kids next door screaming and laughing and the smell of woodsmoke as their parents burnt scraps from their deck remodel. Maybe it’s been a million different things at once.

In fact, I think a part of the reason I feel the need for a channel beyond teaching is because of the bounty of teaching itself. When students come into my classroom they bring a messy stew of energy with them—happy energy, angry energy, anxious energy, hopeful energy. And then I get up and I try to explain to them why Anglo-Saxon poetry runs soul deep or how the source of Jane Eyre’s self-worth is the gospel and that this is why she has the capacity to forgive the way she does, and I watch bewilderment and understanding flicker intermittently through their eyes. I’m consistently amazed at how close observation, when I am willing to make it habitual, generates deep, rooted love. I come home nearly every day all full up not only of my own feeling, but also theirs. 

So I am brimful and I need another place to toss my words out like lines. There is so much to say, and, unsurprisingly, writing is my first port of call.

But recently with writing, I haven’t been sure where to begin. In fact, about a week ago, I made a list of writing projects I could be working on and there were about eight of them, none standing out to me any more than the others. So I put aside the list with vague despair. And then as I was cleaning up my living room one night before a friend came over, I remembered what pulled me into my last novel not only at the beginning, but what kept tugging and tugging and led me all the way through to the end. I was writing to the point where Jesus showed up. The beginning of the story was a promise and I was writing my way toward the fulfillment. His love pulled me on and on.

This is what all those moments I’ve been momentarily clutching to my chest have in common. Those pictures on my wall are a promise, the heady scent of wood smoke is a promise, the storms and sparks in my students’ eyes are a promise, and so, too, is that cadence of drums in the night air. They are all signs of goodness, declarations of God’s intention to fulfill what he has pronounced.

So as I stood there on the braided rug of my living room, three books tucked under my arm to shelve and a glass to put in the sink, I knew. I knew at once that I need to pick the project with that promise at its heart. I need to pick the thing that will have me write my way along some winding path to incarnate hope. I need to toss my line out in the direction of Christ, over and over, so that he may grasp it, and draw me closer in.

So, without even looking back at my list, I know which line I’m tossing. And I’m very excited.

Good Yeast of Spirit

I’m finishing up a week at a writers’ retreat in a little town in Kentucky. There’s been a lot of bourbon and wine and a lot of lean-in-on-the-arm-of-your-chair-laughing conversations, a lot of tears and a lot of blue sky.

Yesterday we toured a distillery and one of the first places they took us was a room lined with vats each as big as my kitchen, all full of caramelly brown yeast eating away at the sugars in corn—bubbling, swirling froth. The tour guide invited us to reach down into one of them. The air above was warm with steam, but the liquid I brought to my mouth on my finger was cool and soft and sweet.  Some exchange of life was happening between the air and the liquor and I couldn’t understand it.

This evening I fly back to Greensboro and then on Wednesday I’ll be teaching again for the first time in four years. In four days there’ll be kids in my classroom and I’ll be back up front doing that writing-in-real-time thing of communicating to a live, volatile audience. It seems surreal.

Then I’ll come home at the end of each day to my new place that’s all my own, my place that has a sunny upstairs second bedroom. Soon I’ll get a bed for it and then I’ll be holding a place for others, a place with a chair and bed and two windows and boxes of books that have yet to be unpacked. All on a quiet street under the trees.

And a couple evenings a week when I come home—I’m saying this now so that somebody hears me—I will write, curled up in an alcove with a window. I may come back to more revisions on this novel, I may write some poetry, and I may take a stab at long-form creative non-fiction. In fact, I may try them all at once, switching from one to the next to the next because variety is good for the soul. It wakes you up.

The point is this. I’ve felt just about every way I possibly can about my writing in the past week, but the ultimate truth that has sifted down into my gut through all my tumult is that I must keep at it, even if I’m “planting the crop I will not live to harvest,” a crop stored in barrels for years to come. So I’ll gladly pay teaching the mental, emotional tax it demands, but I’ll also guard that home writing alcove ferociously. I’ll continue to sit down with a blank page and reach out a hand through the mist of words to the meaning. I won’t understand it, but some exchange of life will be happening.

Homing

My dad writes poems for birthdays, so I have a box full of cards with lines of rhythmic verse in his ballpoint pen. And I’m not sure if he knows this, because he doesn’t save copies for himself, but more than one of them from the last few years is called “Homing.” Apparently, for him, coming back home, finding my way from a distance, is one of the repeated themes of my life. 

He’s not wrong. As of yesterday, I’m back in Greensboro for good and all (at least as far as I know.) I’ll be teaching in a classroom down the hall from my old one and living in a place down the street from my parents. I know that many blessings have fallen into my lap, but despite my usual grandiose tendencies for meditating on place and space during a transition, that hasn’t seemed like the important thing. What’s seemed like the important thing, what I’ve been thinking about more than ever as I’ve moved, is just human relationship. 

Three times in the last couple months I’ve cried when saying goodbye. I never used to do this. I used to do my stoic midwestern roots proud and wave people off cheerfully and go on with my day. No longer. I’ve grown sentimental and gooey in my old age—tearing up and hugging extra tight, trying in vain to stuff down the unseemly rip of grief in my chest.

That’s one explanation at least, but as plausible as it is, I rather suspect the larger thing that’s happening is that I’m coming to understand what we all are to each other. I’m coming to understand that when you know someone for a long time or a short time or any time at all, the friction of the contact, of the bumping up against one another’s shell, wears away at the hard edges. And more quickly than we know, we carve out space in each other—I in you and you in me. We do this over and over, at every turn of our lives. 

Sometimes the process can be painful and sharp, but eventually—in the best relationships—these carved-out spaces become soft, welcoming, just the right shape. Eventually, each person you’ve been close to carries always with them a brief home for you to come to. Because even though they can be hard to access at times, these holes we wear into each other never really go away. And so the more people we meet, the more we love and are loved, the more we’re likely to end up walking around like Swiss cheese people, full of holes just the right shape for people out there who in turn bear the shape of home for us.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been mourning in those leavings, I think. I’ve been mourning those homes cleft in friends that they carry away with them as we part–the comfort and the goodness. But I don’t “grieve without hope.” I’m well-practiced at homing. I always find my way back.