On Packing

I’ve been wandering my way towards writing this entry for several days now.

Sometime around a week ago (I’ve forgotten how long) I decided I was going to stop overthinking things. And by things, I mean leaving Vancouver and Regent and my life here, and the responsibility of saying goodbye, and trying to do a good job of it. I’m just going to live the last few weeks here, and then leave.

This decision was concurrent with the realization that the thing that matters most to me in leaving is packing. I like sorting—I always have. And in packing I get to sit in my room literally sorting through the pieces of my life: the clothes, and the books, and the papers, and the birthday cards, and the travel mugs, and the toiletries I thought I would use but definitely never did, and the bobby pins, and the shoes, and the map of Canada that my American brother gave me, and the jackets, and the novel drafts, and the piece of paper from a few months ago on which I drew multiple graphs charting my levels of happiness over the course of different semesters in Vancouver which perhaps proves that my choice to stop overthinking was long overdue. 

So I like packing. That’s one thing. I like sitting with the windows open in the afternoon sunshine and touching each of my possessions after a year without touch, putting them in piles to give away or keep or send on to the next place, telling the housemate on my bed what each of them is and why it is that way. It’s almost as good as having everybody I love in the same big room and getting to share a secret conspiratorial grin with every one in turn and feel so glad to know them.

Because that’s the other thing: it’s occurred to me that probably the best way of doing justice to my life and times at Regent and the channels they have made in me is not through thinking or talking or even poetry, but just through action, through continuing to do the thing I’ve been doing. I don’t need to make or dig for meaning, because I’m already surrounded by it. It’s in the mementos that crowd my room and in the ongoing everyday actions of my housemates and my friends and even the dog. It’s in the food and the drink and the spring leaves and the wind and the familiar sidewalks. I’m in it and under it and on it.

The last blog entry I wrote before I arrived here in 2018 was called “Seismic Shifts,” about God moving the ground beneath my feet, all of our feet, and from my little vantage point of clutter in the pale pink bedroom with the high window I can see that that divine movement has unearthed so much color and raw glory in the last three years. So as I leave again, I’m happy to simply trust the slow, dusty movements beneath me in their good work.

Yet I must say, in a certain way I feel much more as if I’m headed towards something than I did when I left Greensboro to come to Vancouver. I’m heading towards home, wherever that may be.

Talking to My First-Year Self

If you read these often enough, you may remember that I have a journal where I like to write three little lines about what I did every day. I’ve done it for about a decade now. Its main purpose is to be able to look back to a month ago or a year ago or three, and see what surprises or mishaps I felt were worth recording. But I’ve found that in the last year I’ve stopped reading back so much. I still dutifully write down the small happenings of the day, but I can’t bear to look back at the doings of pre-COVID Alice, because I find myself thinking that she didn’t know. She just didn’t know.

Yet over the last few weeks as I’ve presented my final project, wrapped up last assignments, turned twenty-nine, and realized how very numbered my days in the Regent building are, I’ve been thinking back to my past self quite a lot, involuntarily. Specifically, to the Alice of fall 2018, the one who walked in bone-weary and wide-eyed in her brave gold shoes, unconcerned over whether she would make a single friend. And I’ve begun to wonder, as I squint through the fog of this month’s impending goodbyes and the summer’s personal tectonic shifts, if she’d have anything to offer me. What if she did know some things, things I’ve since forgotten?

So I imagine that she and I could find each other and sit down on a bench together in some wood between the worlds, some place between then and now, and have a talk. The trees in that place are very tall and let in a lot of light, and where we sit we can hear voices in the distance, but they never get any closer. It is warm and still there, and we are dressed for August. I begin by telling her all about how tired I am here in Spring of 2021 and all the things that have made me that way. 

I am trying to impress her with my feelings, but she is difficult to impress. She only nods placidly. So I up the ante and tell her that in my old age (read: in the last few months) I have become bitter and sometimes angry.

She does seem surprised by this and turns to face me fully. “I don’t know about that,” she says.

I look down at my hands. “You don’t know about a lot of things,” I say to her in triumph.

She grins and laughs. “Yeah, ain’t that the truth?” Annoyed that her self-deprecation is disrupting my narrative, I slouch down against the wooden bench. She sees this, and tries again, her voice low and earnest, “Listen, you can withstand a lot, kiddo. You know that.”

“But I shouldn’t have to,” I say.

“Maybe,” she says. “But it’s not forever.” I stay very still and quiet, brushing my bare feet back and forth against the soft grass. I know what’s coming next. Crouched sideways on the bench, knees poking towards me, she continues, “Do you remember how when you first came here, you didn’t think you’d ever really be happy again? Like you didn’t even know it was possible?” 

“Yeah,” I say, because I do remember.

Sounding awed because she is talking about her own present, she says, “And then you were. Just like that, you were happy.”

I let my tight-folded arms drop into my lap. “Yeah, I remember. It was like…fresh air.” She waits. She knows me, so she waits. At last I say, “I do think I’ll be happy again. I don’t worry about that now.”

“You’re not scared,” she says. It’s not a question.

I let my feet drop through the grass to meet the cool soil. “Not most of the time, no. Just overwhelmed. And small.”

She shrugs. “Small is good.” 

“Small is good,” I admit. It’s not really worth fighting her. She knows I know she’s right.

We sit there being small for a little while. And then she speaks up again, her voice slow because she has another idea. “When you first came here you could only process everything by writing poems. Because you could only understand one new thing at a time. And you were content to see just the trees and not the whole forest. Could you try that now?”

I think for a while, honest thinking. “I could try,” I tell her at last in a little voice.

“Trying is all you have to do,” she says.

“I forget that.” Then I smile, which is a relief to my whole body, and add, “But I forget a lot of things, I guess.”

She twists her body on the bench to face forward again, clearly pleased with herself and her work. “So I came to remind you. Trying and failing is my area of expertise, you know.”

“Oh, I know.” I laugh at her and she laughs at her.

We are quiet again and she glances over at me appraisingly. She’s such a stare-er, I realize. More than I ever knew when I was her. Not sure if I’m joking or not, I ask, “So is my sadness interesting?”

“Not very,” she says, looking away.

I feel a rush of affection and shake my head. “Bless,” I say.

She glances back in slight horror. “Do you say that now?”

“Oh, I say that now!” I tell her.

“Lord, help,” she says.

Porta Potties and the Joy of Being

It’s spring here this week, really, really spring. Last night, after dinner, I walked to the store to pick up a few things. I wore only a jacket and the air was blue and soft and fragrant and on my way I saw blooms that looked like dozens of tiny daisies all crowded round together, like cluster diamond rings. Every one of my senses told me that all this was a beautiful day, but I couldn’t really feel it. 

I got what I needed at Safeway, and came out thinking about my foul mood, and how recently anytime I try to reflect on the last year I feel resentful. Perhaps then, I thought, I should focus on the here and how. Maybe if I start there, I won’t be so angry. But even that didn’t seem to be working, I was so far out of sorts. Everywhere I looked, all I saw was annoyance, so I slouched on.

And then, passing a construction site, I looked up and caught sight of a couple porta potties next to each other, one blue and one pink. And I stopped, and I stood still, and a strange feeling came over me, and I laughed. Because why, oh why would anyone go to the trouble of making aesthetic choices for a porta potty, one of the most famously man-made, utilitarian, temporary, and gross objects on the planet? I mean, if you want to have separate toilets for men and women, just a straightforward sign on the door will do the trick. And yet. At some point some manufacturer must have said, How about if we have some design options? How about if we have not only grey, but deep sea blue and bright bubble gum pink? Let’s get those going on the production line! People will love it. And then I imagined some site manager or someone, when planning for the build, had looked at the pictures and gone, Ooooh, yes, let’s mix and match a little, and order a few of each color, then we’ll alternate them for visual contrast once we get them on site! What fun! The more I thought about it, the less I could think of any other explanation.

So I stood there and kept on grinning, because the color of a pair of porta potties was all superfluous joy. There was no reason for them to be this way, and yet here they were. In fact, because of the porta potties, I had trouble getting home. My feet moved me very slowly. I kept getting started and then just stopping and standing there in giggling, grateful reverence, and then needed to remind myself to keep walking.

My body, which on the way over had resisted all the delicate, sublime urgings of creation itself to rejoice, was now responding with fierce delight to the absurdity of colored plastic boxes full of human waste. 

There’ll always be something, friends, there’ll always be something.

Morning Rest

I have a few different notes and lists stuck up next to my bed. I’m a great lover of lists. One of them is titled “Goals,” and the first item on it says “Get better at mornings.” If you would like to know what I mean by this I’m not really sure myself, except that the first hour or so of my day, when I’m pulling myself out of sleep, is usually when I feel most frustrated, most frightened, and least rested. And I’d like it if that wasn’t always the case.

Rest, real rest, is hard, apparently. I remember discovering this way back in undergrad, but for all of us within the last year, the definition and attainment of real rest has gotten especially fuzzy. We’ve done much of our working, relaxing, escaping, talking, worrying, waiting, sleeping, playing, trying and then failing to love our neighbors, and checking the latest news all within the same confining walls. It’s hard to know what the boundaries are anymore. Everything we do starts to bleed together. And the ability to rest, already so difficult, falls deep into the cracks.

Thus I’ve set this entirely unmeasureable “get better” goal for myself and have made small, gentle amounts of progress towards it, towards occasionally being propelled into morning prayer by something other than a foul, anxious mood, but it’s been a real effort, a back and forth between numbing myself from feeling and a vigilant monitoring of my habits and thoughts. I’m striving for peace, but usually failing.

And then late Thursday morning, I took the bus into Regent for a library shift. A little over halfway there, around the time we passed Wallace Street, I realized that without deciding to I’d tipped my head against the window, a little sleepy, eyes half-closed. And as I leaned there I was thinking slow, wandering, insignificant thoughts about who-knows-what for the first time in a long, long while. Rest had come upon me unbidden, as gift, without me even choosing it. Trees and houses floated past and I sunk deeper, softer into my seat. I almost missed pulling the cord for my stop.

So here I am in the stillness of Holy Saturday, the enchanting effects of that rest from Thursday long gone, my own weary, cyclical strivings to be better at mornings (and all things) firmly back in play. Yet that moment on the bus stands as witness—as I find moments on the bus often do—that rest is a thing given, not attained, and it can come upon us wonderfully like surprise, like resurrection.

On Leaving Vancouver Like This

I graduate from Regent in May and I have less than three months left in Vancouver. Despite the fact that the past year has crept along at an agonizingly slow pace for so many of us, three months doesn’t seem like much time. And as I expressed here a few weeks ago, I am very ready to be back in the States. But part of that, if I’m being honest, is because leave-taking is hard. I’d like to skip this part, and just move on to the future already.

Leaving Vancouver and Regent right now, in their semi-hibernated-covid states, feels like having to say goodbye to someone you love very much while they sleep. 

There are upsides to this, of course. I’m an emotional person, but not a demonstratively sentimental one, so I’ve never been big on sloppy, drawn-out goodbyes. It’s sounded appealing recently to just detach from community and place here, to stop paying attention to how beautiful the mountains are and how the bus hums, even to pull back from my close friendships in preparation for slipping out the back door of this place at the beginning of the summer. I could latch it quietly, I’m sure, and no-one would be the wiser. In my more socially awkward moments I’ve certainly polished my own version of the unannounced exit. 

And yet to sever ties like that, to pull myself in and bundle myself away so as not to deal with the ungainly mess of an ill-timed farewell doesn’t do justice to what this place and people and experience has meant to me. 

Also, despite my self-protective dreams of timely emotional detachment, I haven’t really been handling things so neatly. For the past few weeks I’ve gotten up and written in my journal and worked library shifts and had meetings and read books and interviewed folks for my guided study and gone for walks and made stew and small talk and advised friends on life decisions. And yet, I’ve still found myself for at least a couple hours a day sitting and watching the sleeping giant of my time here, contemplating what has come and gone in and around and through me.

If things were more wakeful and normal, I wouldn’t be doing so much of this contemplation. There would be overwhelming busy-ness and distractions and parties and occasions, and they’d all be punctuated with occasional short, nostalgic conversations about time and how it flies, sometimes with close friends and sometimes with acquaintances. And I would blink and it would be over and we’d all hug and I’d move away and write a blog entry about it that wouldn’t be bogged down by questionable existential metaphors about sleep.

But that doesn’t happen to be the way of things now, here, for me. Existential metaphor is my lot at the moment. Trying to say goodbye in this way, on my own, means I have time and space to think of everything that’s happened. I think of regrets and embarrassments and disappointments and the occasional frustration. And sometimes, if I am very brave and allow myself to dive down deep, I think of the good things too. I think of a lot of laughter and a lot of conversations and a lot of pictures of my feet that I took at bus-stops in my first month here. I think of sidewalks I’ve walked down and beaches I’ve stood on and bowls of soup I’ve eaten and ferries I’ve taken and a whole lot of people who’ve sat down beside me–so many of those. I think of hands and flowers and washing dishes. All these things are a bit sharp and painful in my chest, and that reminds me that they’re worth writing a story about some time. For me, they’ve already been one.

But more than that, the place itself will wake all the way up one day, probably not long after I go. It’ll rise and shine and then we’ll all come back and have a party–not a good-bye party, but a hello one. (That’s the dream, at least.)

Spring Talking

The other day the sun was out and I took a walk. I only got so far as crossing the street and then there were crowds of crocuses standing brazenly in the grass, as if they’d always been there and we’d all just forgot to look at them. They were the big purple kind which I’d never seen till I moved here and which always make me catch my breath. But they also made me think of the ones I grew up with, the sacred first sign of spring—small, delicate, and canary yellow—peeking up around the corners of the grey slate paving stones which lead up to my parents’ blue side porch.

Then I took myself all the way down Yew Street to Kits Beach.

The evening after I took that walk (or maybe it was the next evening altogether) I read two chapters of Wind in the Willows aloud to my housemates (the first and fifth because those are the best ones). I made it through Chapter Five without crying, but just barely. The little monologue in which Mole explains to Rat how he had wanted to stop and go back to see his little home, but his friend hadn’t listened to him, is really rather raw (more raw than last time I read it, at least). That “spirit of divine discontent and longing” that Kenneth Grahame talks about has come early for me this year.

I’m homesick. I’m homesick for America and for road trips and for new jeans and high heels and for friends’ couches and for Pilot Mountain and for fresh tacos and for laughter and quiet and Yeats’ bee-loud glade. I’m homesick for what was and for what’s next. I’m homesick for Lord-only-knows-what. 

Only the Lord may know for now, but when I do see it, like the crocuses, then I’m sure I’ll know it. I’ll be like Mole coming upon Rat’s little boat, Mole whose “whole heart went out to it at once, even though he did not yet fully understand its uses.” 

Broken Ice

It’s February. February always gets to me and this year I think it’s gotten to everybody. For my part I’ve spent the last week or so ruminating over the realization that it’s vulnerable to hand my work off to someone else for feedback, to let it out of my control. As I face a second revision of my novel, I’m suddenly very aware that I don’t quite take naturally to creative collaboration, that when doing what I love, I like to work alone.

Then this morning, I had a library shift. Around noon I wheeled a cart out from behind the circulation desk to shelve some books and saw movement out in the garden. Regent’s library is underground and to the west there are tall sliding windows that face onto a small rectangular reflective pool and three sharp tiers of a much-beloved vegetable garden which lead up to street level. I haven’t seen a human being in that space in months. Yet before my eyes were three boys scrambling down the ladders which lead from one tier to another, leaping like monkeys, clearly drawn by the lure of the icy pool below. One of them immediately swept up an eight or ten foot garden stake which lay unused. Then they saw me standing a few yards away and all three froze, the smallest with the stake poised above the pool. 

The boys stared at the librarian lady and I stared back. For the briefest of moments I contemplated rapping on the glass and telling them off which was clearly what they expected, but then sanity prevailed. They were hoodlums certainly, but small ones—the oldest was no more than thirteen. And besides, I understood. I understood in the depths of my soul what they had come to do. It’s been colder than usual for Vancouver-winter the last few days, and every time I’ve walked past those windows I too have found that dull, wrinkled ice enticing. How thick is it really? I wonder. Surely paper thin… But what if it was thick enough to crunch when broken? What if it could take the weight of a leaf, a stick, a toe? And imagine how a stomp would do it in…

So with a nod of respectful approval, I turned my back and pushed away my cart of books as the boys got down to work, though I desperately wanted to stay and watch. In the next few minutes, I passed by as often as I could, praying they would not get caught by anyone else. But things are quiet here still and no one else materialised. Best of all, the ice was thicker and putting up more of a fight than expected—they were only able to make cracks and gouges, no matter what weapons they used to attack it. For some reason its hardiness delighted me. On my third pass by I expected at least one would have gained the courage to step out and test the water with his own weight but instead I saw only the disappearing heels of the smallest as he climbed the highest garden ladder, the long stake still in tow. I stopped again and gazed out over the garden, mourning their absence and wondered idly if they would carry that huge garden stake all the way down Wesbrook Mall. 

And then, up above at ground level, the tip of the wood stake appeared hesitantly over one of the railings. I grinned. Oh, how I had underestimated my friends. They knew physics. They knew about gravity. There was a thump and a clatter as it fell. 

They did not return to retrieve it. Accepting, I think, of the failure of their venture, they left the stake nestled on ice which was still only just cracked, a testament to a valiant, collaborative attempt at joyful destruction. Still smiling, I went to find a pen to take notes.

Scope for the Imagination

I got the first dose of the covid vaccine last week. My sister told me the day before that I needed to take a selfie at the exact moment I got the shot and post it on every social media channel immediately, so that people would know. I told her I absolutely wouldn’t. But I am writing this blog entry, so, you know…

For many people the vaccine symbolizes hope—hope for health and light and a return to normalcy—and I do think there is truth to that, but over the last few days I’ve found myself thinking not about how this will change things going forward but about the actual experience of getting vaccinated.

This pandemic was hard and then we got used to it and now, it seems, it has gotten hard again. Here in BC, we’ve been in the grey time of the year for months now, and restrictions are such that, with the exception of those we live with, we can only see one another one at a time, out in the cold rain. Classes are still entirely online. We know things will get better, but we can’t be certain when, and there is no way to mark the future, to make definite plans for joy. We have only the huddled, breath-holding present. There doesn’t seem to be much of Anne Shirley’s fabled “scope for the imagination” just about now. 

I know some people are flatly afraid to hope at this point because they can’t bear to be disappointed, and pessimism feels safe. I’m typically in the opposite camp. I can’t bear not to hope, because otherwise how would I manage to get up in the morning into each new day? Yet recently, with the way everything has felt hemmed in to this current sodden moment, my realist streak has been making its presence felt and I can sympathize with the pessimists in our midst. I remind myself more often than is necessary how long it will take to distribute this vaccine, how much longer after that before people feel safe.

Last Thursday morning my appointment was at 9:20 at the spinal cord clinic at VGH. I briefly waited in one of two lines into a parking lot, then was directed around the corner between tall hospital buildings with foliage pasted on the side and waited in another line for longer. At each checkpoint I was asked which dose I was getting and where I worked (they’re mainly vaccinating care home workers and other health professionals at this point). I noticed that some other people waiting were clutching important-looking yellow slips for dear life, and I wondered what they meant and whether I ought to have one. 

Once I got inside I traded my cloth mask for a medical one and after again confirming where I worked, but still not being asked for ID, I was directed to a table where a woman politely introduced herself, asked me the various screening questions which we’re all so used to by now, and had me fill out a form. When I was finished she handed me a copy of the form, which turned out to be the precious yellow slip, and sent me on to a nurse who also politely introduced herself before asking me a couple questions about my allergies. I’ll freely confess that I don’t remember either of their names but I still liked that they told them to me.

Then she gave me the shot, which ached more than it stung. After, she told me to “follow the orange wall” (a phrase I really liked for some reason) to the after-care room where I would sit for fifteen minutes to make sure I didn’t die. (That’s not quite the way she put it, but I inferred.) The room was populated by a crowd of thirty or forty distanced chairs, with two bored (but still polite) nurses observing in the corner. We were our own time-keepers. Some people chatted, but most sat still and silent, like obedient children waiting at the designated meeting spot on a family day out, coats on and bags clutched on our laps. I was tempted to leave early, but I sat out my full time, because that’s what you do.

Then I left the building cradling the yellow slip which would enable me to get my second dose, and walked back to the hospital parking deck, which is miraculously free to everyone for an unspecified period of time. And I drove home. Getting the vaccine felt normal, which is not what I expected, but so it goes. 

Yet, like I said, I keep thinking about it, about how normal-and-not-normal it was. How normal-and-not-normal all of this is. And I can’t seem to shake it. So perhaps there is scope for the imagination here, in this ashen in-between. The present, after all, is always the point in time which most nearly touches on eternity. And eternity is full of hope.

The Ties that Bind

I flew back into Canada last Wednesday and since then I’ve been tucked up in a little AirBnB in Chilliwack for my two-week quarantine. I have a bed and a bathtub and a sink and a tiny desk and a hot plate and five windows and a pillow that says “cozy” on it.

It feels like my own little world, like it has no address, cannot be found on a map, as if I’ve fallen into a quiet crack in-between. The days here are mine to dispose of. I was, in all honesty, excited about these two weeks, and I don’t think I was wrong to be. I’ve been content.

And yet. Though I’m not lonely, though the days have gone by pretty fast, though I’m happy just looking at the stacks of books I brought with me to this nook in the middle of nowhere, I’ve never been more aware of my connections to others, to the people I love, to the places I love, to my family and my country.

As I’ve moved further into adulthood, gotten used to the idea that I’m a grown-up now, I’ve increasingly framed these relationships in terms of responsibility. I’ve spent plenty of time in recent months agonizing over the difference between responsibility to others and responsibility for them. I’ve worried over my choices, over the right and wrong of it all. At times the thing has seemed like a landmine.

But as I’ve sat on this well-comfortred bed and talked to friends on the phone and listened to rain on the roof and read softly powerful novels like News of the World and Remains of the Day, I’ve begun to suspect that all this introspective agonizing was time slightly misspent. Our connections to those around us are not choice, they are fact. We’re bound to each other, bound by threads which can seem gossamer, almost invisible, but are in reality stronger than anything. 

These threads tie us irrevocably to each other’s goodness, to each other’s badness, to each other’s peace, war, rejoicing, mourning, wisdom, foolishness. I have felt them this week. They exist in our families, in our communities, in our countries, and in our world, and I ignore their existence to my own detriment. Doing so means I will not get beyond cheap hope, brittle faith, shallow love. Ask not for whom the bell tolls seems like a hackneyed line to repeat at this point, but Donne was right and I need to hear it.

All my complicated inner dialogues trying to gauge my own responsibility in any given situation have in many ways been a method of avoidance, a narrative by which I have control, can mark for myself an escape hatch from the potential pain or intensity. If I frame the relationship in terms of my own responsibility, I convince myself I can enforce certain limits or sever ties that bind as if they never existed. 

Then rioters crawl over the walls of the U.S. Capitol building or a friend’s mother stops speaking to her or Stevens at last sits and talks to a stranger on the beach at the end of the novel, and though I lie on my bed in my postage-stamp room in the in-between, not having seen another embodied human face for days, I find that my escape tactics have been for nought. I am so bound to others that I ache.

I do not mean to say that my solitude has been anything but good for me, but that one of the ways it has been good is in reminding me how unshakeable these ties are, that being human means being born with strings attached, strings which can both carry and anchor me. This little room has given me much time to think about over the last few days.

Then this morning I logged on for Regent’s weekly chapel service, which has been on Zoom for nearly a year now, and within the first ten minutes or so my shell of quarantine-contentment crumbled. All the individual anxious faces on their pixelated screens, far from family, tired to begin yet another semester online, overwhelmed me. I logged off in the middle of “In Christ Alone” in protest of the sadness I felt. Then I sat in the gentleness of my pale yellow room with my half-drunk mug of tea and thought about things. And I logged back on. Not because I was responsible to, but because today I wanted to claim this grief, this place, this people to whom I am bound.

2020 Retrospective

The idea of writing a 2020 retrospective makes me giggle, and generally brings out my most cussedly optimistic spirit, so here we go.

I wrote one of these last year, and found that doing so speaks to my almost-nonsensically intense urge to save and keep track of all things important to me, large and small, to gather them all up into one tiny pile and wrap them up in ribbons of meaning. This year has been hard and harder for many, and while I wouldn’t choose to live it again, I’ve realized that to me it has also been precious.

When I look back at my little day-journal it says that the first thing I did this year was take down the Christmas tree. It also tells me that a few days later, when I left my family at a hotel in Minneapolis after a cousin’s wedding to fly back to Vancouver I cried on the early morning airport shuttle. I had forgotten that. But I must have noted it down because it’s unusual for me to be sentimental or clingy about goodbyes. I began this year so tired, and spent the first couple months a little disoriented, sometimes relying on those around me for rides and lunches and patient listening. 

But despite my strange, needy state in January and February my life was busy and full before a pandemic flipped the world wrong way round. I made chili that was not really chili at all for new incoming students, I took three evening classes, I had beer and tacos on Tuesdays. I drove to Montana with friends, went cross-country skiing and was reminded how good I am at falling. I formed a committee, I allowed people to feed me, and I went to an Anabaptist party (whatever that is.)

Then as the world descended blindly into what we now communally view as the beast which has been 2020, I walked a lot. I walked alone and then with friends. I occasionally walked with a dog. I walked up hills in my neighborhood, along the seawall, in Pacific Spirit Park, on the beach and more and more I walked in the rain. I drove through Stanley Park a lot and talked on the phone so much. Two dear friends each miscarried and got pregnant again, and we were reminded that hope is precious, but perhaps frightening. I worried more about money than usual. (But I generally worried more about everything than usual. I had more time for it.) I cried less than usual, and when I did it was often because I was happy. I tried to eat more cheese, but found that writing a novel was a cheaper and more accessible (if not particularly comparable) goal. I woke up angry a lot and went to sleep grateful a lot. I rewatched all of Mad Men. I got new tires and didn’t go anywhere on them.

Softly, painfully, things deep in me began to mend. I took the last classes of my life, thought about friendship a lot, and realized I was feeling more of other people all the time. I wrote a few short stories and a few poems, but mostly as gifts. I graded a whole passel of fifth graders’ essays on Covid around the same time I reread all of Narnia and watched Hamilton.

I finished reading Corrie Ten Boom’s Hiding Place aloud to my housemate after beginning it over two years ago. I cried twice, at the most hopeful parts. Hope and eternity are the realest things in that book. Despite the fact that it’s the story of so many atrocities, of the greatest attempt at inhumanity of the twentieth century, it’s somehow bursting with Easter-new-life. As these oddly-shaped months have slunk by, my best days, my sweetest relationships and conversations, have nearly always been both fiercely hopeful and steadfastly gentle. So in what has sometimes been a year of fear and reflexive vindictiveness and vitriol, I’ve found myself praying for the triumph of quietness, of thoughtfulness, perhaps even of fragility.

I worked at a long-term care home this summer as recreation staff, organizing garden visits between frail old folks and the anxious family members they sometimes could not remember. I worked to hold a lot of names in my head like I did when I was teaching. When I left my co-workers gifted me a notebook, a notebook for writing in. I planned two trips to Galiano that were cancelled, but one that wasn’t. I celebrated Canada Day, decided to move to Wisconsin, and took the Seabus to the North Shore. I read my work aloud over Zoom more than once, got paid to help a couple people with their writing, and cried before beginning my first September library shift because I was so happy to be back in the Regent building. We had such a beautiful spring and fall that I wondered if I had just never paid proper attention to the world around me before. I got flowers upon flowers for my birthday in April, and in October spiders built broad, glistening webs across every alley path. Smoke filled our sky for a week in September and reminded me of the day two years before that I’d moved to Vancouver, sleepy and unsure. 

I’ve stayed tethered so closely to the same place and people recently, but am somehow bursting with superfluous (and likely bad) short story ideas. I’m happy about it. This year has been a year of having very little, of living with empty, open hands, of trusting that when I wake up on this small floating island, it will be in the place that God intended for me. I say that every year, but perhaps every year it is more true. Undeserved, unexpected, and often unasked for abundance has fallen into my lap this year, over and over, brighter because of the darkness that surrounds it, its goodness painful for eyes used to the dim grey. I cried over it just this morning, on the corner of my parents’ couch.

For it is worth saying that I missed home this year. I don’t usually, but this year I did. I missed my parents’ living room and real, sloppy, wet rain and people who often interrupt each other but only apologize for it a quarter of the time. So I came home to North Carolina for Christmas, and sang around the piano. Last week, we spent a few days up along the Blue Ridge in a cabin decorated with scythes and arrowheads and two-man saws and a picture of a Gold-Rush-era man in a bathtub. From our windows, we could see hill upon hill of half-grown Christmas trees against the sky, ready and waiting for next year.