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.