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.

Wayfaring in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

I have a lot to say.

I had my last day of work on a Tuesday and by Thursday I was on a plane heading across an ocean for the first time in years. The man in my row didn’t have much English, but smilingly offered me biscuits over and over throughout the flight, and solicitously slipped an extra pillow under my knees when I curled them up onto the empty seat between us. When my client Bonnie had said goodbye, she worried aloud that no one was looking out for me. I thought of this, tucked up in that tight plane seat, and smiled.

My sister picked me up at London Heathrow on Friday morning, and, driving with aggressive delight in her little Honda Jazz, brought me back to her place for a shower. Then, within an hour I was with her and friends in the park in Southall doing book table, and a few hours later at youth club: eating pizza in a church basement, then sitting under a tree by a water cooler dreamily watching teenagers play a frisbee game that was slowly devolving, and thinking that these kids were so nice and funny and going back into teaching sounded not so bad after all. I slept very well that night, suddenly in a different place.

Mary took me out into the countryside the next day, to the Royal Standard, supposedly the oldest pub in Britain. I had pickled kidneys for lunch, and then we went on an idyllic walk over rolling hills while I chattered on to her about my uncertain plans for the future. That evening back in Southall her friend made us biryani. I realized that it had been a long time since I had seen Mary in her place—this bright, noisy, curry-scented corner of England—and it had sunk its roots deep into her. In response, she stepped into every room she entered with loud, dependable confidence.

By Sunday evening, my family had all arrived and we went to my sister’s church, Masih Ghar, and then to the back garden at the local pub to celebrate Father’s Day. It was one of only two dinners the five of us had together over the course of the week. It was good and easy and certain. 

Over the next few days I climbed St. Paul’s with George (where I found out that my brother—who for decades has given the impression that he can leap tall mountains in a single bound—does not much like heights) and went to a traveling circus with my family (where we clapped and laughed and gasped while women hung by their hair, and men hung by their chins, and a human pyramid of acrobats jumped rope together). I found myself at the kids club and the parent-toddler group my sister runs and having huge dosas for lunch, sitting in red booths. I’ve spent the last year or two pulling the shutters of myself closed—metaphorically, physically, even metaphysically—but nothing here would let me do that. Something was always in the way. The latch was broken.

*

By Wednesday afternoon, I was walking along the river in Cambridge with my brother and mom, brightly painted canal boats on our left and a park full of lolling students on our right. I wore a long skirt and sandals, like summer. The conference on George Herbert that my dad had planned began the next morning and I gave my paper very first, on a panel which included one of my professors from undergrad as well as a nice man who remembered me from a conference ten years previous. But the whole weekend was full of odd-but-good connections like that: ties to Vancouver and Pennsylvania and Madison and home. Herbert people, like Herbert himself, are gentle and warm and humble, and I liked talking to them, appreciated that they were always eager to remember my name, though when they realized my family connections, they would say, “So your whole family’s at this conference? I’ve never seen that before…” And I’d laugh and say, “I know. Neither have I. Don’t worry about it.”

Throughout the week, anxiety was sometimes still gnawing at my belly, but slowly, cracks began to form, letting the light in. The first night we sat in Little Saint Mary’s for a poetry reading. I had been, more than I think I understood, wrestling with the place of writing in my life—with what seat to give it at the table, with how to keep it from becoming a bugbear—and my heart slowed its irregularities, felt healthy and hungry again, as I listened to people faithfully present the words they had strung together. One poem was called “Reading the Desert Fathers While Eating a Donut.” The audience knew what she meant.

Then there was the banquet in the great hall at Trinity College—ornate wood paneling reached all around us and hands reached over our shoulders to refill wine glasses again and again, and I think I might have had duck five different ways. Afterwards we sat in Trinity Chapel while a vocal ensemble sang baroque arrangements of Herbert’s poems, harmonies rising over us into high stone space like a woven canopy. They were accompanied by a lute player who just looked like a lute player. I could’ve picked her out if I saw her on the street in Kansas.

And on Sunday, Malcolm Guite led us in a Eucharist service at Clare College Chapel, and the words of the Anglican liturgy tumbled around in my head, where they’ve been nesting for more than a decade now—Ye that intend to lead a new life, they say. There was one more keynote talk that afternoon at a church in the countryside where we were greeted with change-ringing from the bell-tower. As I sat on a centuries-old wooden pew, I watched the leaves behind the leaded glass at the far end of the chancel bobbing their heads in the breeze. Yes, they said, new life, yes, yes.

After that we went to Little Gidding where we were served cake and tea in the garden and one of the poets who is also a latinist read T.S. Eliot’s poem in the place of its birth—because what else could we do? “We shall not cease from exploration,” he read, projecting over the windy blusters which shook the tent and made the tent poles creak. That evening a friend I hadn’t seen since 2020 picked me up in Cambridge and we drove through the night up to Edinburgh. I sometimes slept and sometimes talked and was content without pretense.

*

After a negligible amount of sleep in Edinburgh, Tze and I were on the road again by midday, this time in a 20-year-old Land Rover Defender with another artist in tow. I listened to the tick of the windshield wipers and looked out the window. I realized that over the last couple years as I’ve been busy latching the shutter of myself—I know I have—I may have been missing some things. It was as if there had been a rush of water—a rush of newness—over old glass, and now it was time to look out again and see how the views had shifted. So as we traveled north and north, I paid attention.

There are so many blues and greens and browns and greys and purples in the world—more than I ever knew. Gorse and heather grew up over the country, which was sparsely populated by sturdy buildings with little rows of chimney pots. For the last hour of the drive there were constant vistas to our right hand side: wide, slow hills crested by winding stone walls that did not seem to know they weren’t there to crown a king. Beyond that lay the blanket of the sea, striped with sand, and above that the clouds, a landscape unto themselves. 

We talked most of the time, too. I pulled out my clothing interview questions from my project last spring and we all three went through them as we sped past legions of sheep and cows who were living in glory and didn’t even know it. 

We arrived at Freswick Castle, up north of Wick, in time for dinner, a place where they take in artists and strays and seem determined to leave the latchstring out. So I spent the next few days with warm people, people who tell you encouragingly that you seem so comfortable and confident without realizing this is due to their kindlinesses. Our wine glasses were refilled constantly at dinner. I felt more “looked out for” than Bonnie sitting worrying in her chair back in Madison could have imagined, and was often on the verge of tears. It was a combined sense, I think, of inadequacy and gratefulness. It didn’t get all the way dark there, even at midnight. On clear nights in midsummer, the sky just gets drowsy blue-gold-pink and hangs like that for a few hours before the sun comes up again. Murray, who owns the place, gave us a tour and spoke confidently about where the theater and the film studio and the pool would go. In the midst of all that cloudy diffusion of light, it was hard not to believe him.

In the mornings, I sat in the window in my room and attempted writing exercises and struggled over the skeletons of poems—unsure where to direct all my words and thoughts. And one day, using spotty wifi, I managed to obtain an apartment back in Greensboro (a place all my own) and a job (teaching literature back at Caldwell—And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we first started…) The castle is large, but also small, and everyone there had a front-row seat to the tumult of my transition. My friend was filming a video for Wayfarer Trust, which operates out of the castle, and I shot some moody b-roll and a less moody interview with him and continued to wonder where writing would fit for me now. I watched candles reflected in the mirror each night while we drank whiskey by the fire, noticed how the old hearthstones lay flush with restored floors, and took deep breaths.

I took walks, of course—with others at Duncansby Head, where we saw a puffin, and along the cliffs on my own, clammy with clear sweat. In that part of the world, the wind was such an active participant that it was visible in all things, like the Spirit. The grasses bow to it, the water ruffles under its touch, and the birds—hundreds of them—coast trustingly on its back.

*

I was tired by Friday, when I left Freswick. But it was the tiredness of progress. The pages of my journal were beginning to feel safe again, not like a wilderness. Tze and I dropped off one friend in Inverness and immediately picked up three more and headed west to the Isle of Skye.

While we drove and chatted I watching the highlands outside becoming more and more themselves, and thought of too many ways to describe the hills: the lines of the slopes rise like Icarus climbing into the late-day sun…wrinkled knees under sheets in the lamp light…mountain peaks are arms reaching up side by side like Moses at the battle against the Amalekites. 

We did a far-too-large grocery shop before crossing onto Skye, and then the back of the Defender was so crowded that I spent the last hour with a lap full of raw poultry and a bottle of wine in my skirt. Even so, when we got to the cottage we realized we’d forgotten butter, so half-hysterical, and with varying amounts of encouragement from friends, I beat heavy cream till we had enough for the next morning’s toast.

We spent the next couple days scrambling around the island. I liked seeing friends dotted into the muddy creases of a steep green hillside as we climbed, and I didn’t mind it when I stepped in a bog, went in up to my calf, and almost lost a shoe. The sludge that was left on my leg was green at its top edge, like the earth itself. Hiking there was much more about making your own way than following a path, and as we traced along the side of the mountain at Quiraing I always found my feet drifting up and up, unconsciously choosing the high road. At Fairy Glens there were loud American voices that made me smile. “You’re makin’ me nervous and I don’t even know you!” one woman shouted to a Scot high on the rocks, who immediately shot her a look of disdain. Another repeated over and over and over to Lord-only-knows-who, “Lookit the dog working the sheep across the valley!” 

I carried my journal with me everywhere and squinted as the sun reflected off its pages, managing to scribble anyway about the benches cleft of mud and grass, the plush black moss at the tops of things and the ankle-deep mounds of springy orange growth on the descent. My hair whipped all the time into my peripheral vision, so I could only see what was just below my feet. 

At the Old Man of Storr, it was gusty and threatening and while the rest hiked I stayed tucked in my seat in the back of the car and re-read my journal. I found I’d used the word “visceral,” over and over to describe the trip, as if it were a brand new discovery each time—that goodness could be real, that I could taste it. I heard a passerby say loudly to her boyfriend, “You think she looks sad back there?” But all I was thinking was, What a funny place for flowers to grow—in wind and rain and chill.

The last day we left Skye slowly—on the way I bought a very nice felt hat and a sheepskin hot water bottle cover. We stopped at a distillery where they made storm-matured whiskey, a phrase I loved. We stopped for photos by a bridge and by a castle and by a valley and by a beach, and got caught in the rain again and again. Back on the mainland I made them listen to me read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever aloud, even though it was July. We drove along Loch Lomond, which is very long, and listened to sad Scottish songs, and then eventually to James Taylor as well as Peter, Paul and Mary, because it was, after all, American Independence Day.

*

I slept extra the next morning, back at Tze’s house. Then he showed me bits of Edinburgh—from low tide and from a high hill—and we bought pasties at the train station and he saw me off.

I was sad on the train back to London. So I listened to a Kate Atkinson novel and then saw a pure white horse in the middle of a sheep field, which made me feel hopeful I was T.S. Eliot, on the verge of something great and somber. “Costing not less than everything,” I thought (lines from “Little Gidding” kept coming back to me with dramatic import.)

Then the last day I put on a crop-top, a white linen skirt, and the new hat itself, and went into central London alone. I wandered around the V&A, going up stairs and more stairs till I’d climbed out of the way of most of the other people. I looked at tiles and stained glass and golden miniatures and modern furniture design till I was all full up and warm. I got lunch in Hyde Park, and took the tube to Hampstead Heath where I meandered around for a while, ineffectually but peaceably. Then I came back and had dinner in Southall with Mary and some of the short term teams there for the week, scooping up butter chicken and paneer and dal with pieces of naan till I was satisfied, my fingers oily, but clean.

On my travels home, I made friends—on the plane, in the customs line, on the bus—or rather they made me, drawn by my cool new hat or maybe just their own anxieties. And I thought a lot about the Luci Shaw poem “The chair without distinction,” about just sitting on the edge of things, windows and doors wide open, available to be walked into, to be leaned on for a moment. I had walked into the kind doors of so many other people in the past few weeks, more than I could count.

The point is, this trip gave me much. That’s what I’m trying to say with all these too many words. But the thing it did most is it busted me open, cracked through dry skin, and began what may be a long process of cleaning me out. It told me that I must and can write and that I must and can love. I’m already doing them both anyway and I was made for them. So best not hold them in. Christ walks on the water, the wind, the seemingly impossible, and he’s calling me to meet him there, holding out open hands, always open.

As it says over the door of the Royal Standard when you cross the threshold, “Go gently, pilgrim” (but, by all means, go.)

Sacred Work

A dear friend is back home in Switzerland at the moment, spending time with her uncle as he’s dying. She visits him in his nursing home and they go for drives and have long conversations about where they’ll go for lunch and then she comes back to the family farmhouse and sits on the front steps and sometimes leaves me a voice message. 

And a few weeks ago, a client of mine died, just hours after I finished a shift with her. So I left Regula a message, because I figured that at the moment she’d understand even more than most people—maybe even more than I did. I told her how Phyllis had been scared because her breathing was getting worse and how I’d called the hospice nurse and how I’d sat with her and eventually held her hand even though she usually liked to be left alone and how when I got the call that night that she’d passed, I was a little shocked, even though I’d been dourly predicting it to my housemates for weeks. I think I also told her that at the beginning of the afternoon, as Phyllis’s son was valiantly urging her to eat a little more, she’d rolled her eyes over to me and pleaded dramatically, “A-lice…” and I’d burst out laughing. Even then, she was thoroughly her stubborn self, and it warmed me.

When Regula replied to me she said—more than once—that it seemed that the work that each of us was getting to do was sacred. And I’ve been thinking about that off and on ever since.

I’ve had thoughts whirling around about the sacred-secular divide and about Dorothy Sayers’ writings on work and other things of that sort, but the main thing I keep thinking is that the work that is the most sacred has a sort of unexpected constancy. It carries on unavoidably into itself from one generation to the next. It’s common grace—you get up, you get dressed, you drive to work, you clock in because you need the paycheck, and then heaven breaks through. 

Just today, I gave my client Bonnie a final copy of her life story that I wrote up, based on interviews I recorded with her a few months ago. She was a labor and delivery nurse here in Madison for forty years. As I edited it together, the bit that gave me a little catch in my throat every time I reached it was when she talked about delivering a premie the doctor thought would be stillborn. She caught him in her hands, “and then I felt it move!” So she rushed him to the nursery, and when she came back to the mother—who was very ill herself and in kidney failure—the woman said, shaking her head, “Too bad it’s dead. Oh, too bad it’s dead…” And Bonnie said to her, “It’s not dead! It’s not dead!”

After fifty years, Bonnie has still not gotten over that story and the happy, healthy little boy that baby grew up into, and I think that’s reasonable. She sits in her chair in the living room, reading the newspaper in the morning, and much of the news is bad. But most of the nice news, she cuts out with a pair of scissors she keeps in her drawer. There is a pile she saves for one of her sons, and often a couple piles for her grandchildren. And then there are all the pieces she sets aside for me. Newspaper clippings are Bonnie’s love language, so now they litter my car and mark many of my books—concerts I never go to and information about Vancouver I already know and releases of books I’ll likely never read. But I have them, just in case, padding all the cracks of my life.

All good work, paid or unpaid, which is done well (or even just done halfway) carries about it at least a whiff of the holy. Abby told me the other day about a woman she knows who says to herself whenever she sweeps the floor, “Take that, Satan!” There is goodness in showing up, opening the curtains, scooping the cats’ litter, washing my hands, wiping the pudding drool, listening, laughing, and folding the underwear, because it’s in the midst of these ordered intimacies that life and death make their grand appearances into our unsuspecting hands. I’m moving on to other places and rhythms quite soon, but I suspect that—wherever I go—I’ll never do work more sacred than this.

Vancouver This May

A week and a half ago I flew back to Vancouver for the first time since I left last June. I was there for four full days and I spent just about every second of them feeling warm and wide-eyed. I forgot words a lot and at one point sat in the atrium at Regent next to a friend, looking up at the blue sky through the skylights and crying while she ate her lunch from JamJar.

Insomuch as I had coherent thoughts beyond “Oh, I’m so happy to be here,” and “Vancouver is green, green, green,” and “Will this person mind if I hug them for the seventh time in as many minutes?” I thought a lot about place and I thought a lot about presence. The importance of the two were all tangled up in my mind, and even now I can’t quite separate them, but perhaps that’s because they’re sprung from the same root.

I knew I wouldn’t be there long enough to get individual time with most people or to visit every place, so I focused on just being

I went from gathering to gathering to gathering in my rain boots that I didn’t need because of the sunshine. I posed for so many pictures with my arms around people, though I didn’t take a single one myself. I bussed home alone on the 25 one afternoon. At Melanie’s on Sunday evening, I unloaded the dishwasher and we all forgot for a moment that I didn’t live there anymore. And on Monday after convocation Jolene booked an Evo to drive me home and we both remembered that our friendship had really properly begun in a car-share three years before.

I saw so many people I was surprised to feel deeply connected to. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. I learn more and more as I get older that you never quite unconnect from anyone, ever, for better or for worse. Dynamics may change significantly, but the ties still bind. You feel them tugging, even when you’re not sure what part of you they’re attached to.

I’m always desperate for perspective of both the literal and metaphorical varieties, for an understanding of how things all fit together at the end of it all, and at one point during the happy, crowded grad tea at Regent, Heather and I went up to the upper level of the atrium and looked down on all the dear heads and motioning hands as people talked. I took a deep breath.

It was more important than I realized it was going to be to walk my two feet over all the ground I used to cover. I took a couple walks with my parents—one around my old neighborhood and one around Stanley Park—and both times I was met with a rush of something that was more like a scent than an actual memory of all my many walks and the long, rainy conversations that had passed over that concrete.

And all the long weekend there was a little note of delight humming continually in me because even when I was inside, there was always abundance out the window—I’d forgotten about that mountain-sea-skyline view that rushes into your lungs like fresh air whenever you look north. It makes me feel like a child.

I flew home on Wednesday, saw two little brown birds contentedly hopping around in the big terminal at the Denver airport, just being, and then landed that evening in a Madison that was enveloped in a hot, humid, other-worldly mist.

The trip, which was really just there and back again, shocked me with the purity of its joy. A year ago, I struggled to leave Vancouver gracefully, to not completely let the tide of my own resentment over what Covid had taken pull me under, but, in a gush of undignified sentimentality, this visit restored things in me which I didn’t know could be restored. “I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten…” Even when I forget to believe the promises, they still turn out to be true. I just show up, hold out my hands in a posture of receiving, and God sends my roots rain.

Brief Thoughts on Turning Thirty

I have a new client who’s almost a hundred and two. He’s very mobile and very sharp and used to be the assistant attorney general of the state of Wisconsin. The other day he mentioned that he had had eczema all his life. I thought, “Wow, you’ve had eczema for more than a hundred years,” and felt overwhelmed.

Anyway, that’s a roundabout way of saying I’m about to be thirty and I’m thinking about aging. The common wisdom you hear from someone who’s past this milestone already is that your thirties are a wonderful decade. In your thirties you’ve grown into your potential, they say. You’re no longer the insecure, haphazard mess you were in your twenties, but a happy, fulfilled, contented, perfected individual. To that end, I thought I’d write a blog entry for my thirtieth birthday called “Things I Didn’t Used to Know,” to share my accumulated knowledge with the waiting masses. 

But then the other day I read a new novel set largely on an island in the Caribbean and I was telling Abby about it and how I didn’t love it that much because it was over-plotted and maybe took itself too seriously, but how I really liked the setting. “It makes me want to know more about the ocean,” I said. “I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know about the ocean!” She started to laugh at me and then I started to laugh at me. The ocean is very, very large and almost infinitely mysterious. And perhaps there are many things I don’t know about many things.

The thing is, despite wanting to appear to be a competent adult who knows the things she’s supposed to know, I’ve always liked mystery, even liked uncertainty when it doesn’t present itself as a problem I need to solve. I drive the beltline here in Madison a whole lot, and without exception my favorite days to drive it are the foggy ones. They’re perhaps not the safest of the lot, but I’ve found that I like it when all familiar landmarks are obscured in the mist and all I’m left with is the yellow line to my left and the white line to my right, the steering wheel beneath my hands and the taillights of other cars ahead of me. It casts a spell, and even though I know I’m retracing the familiar path to my client Bonnie’s house, I also suspect that I’m about to emerge into a whole new world, full of colors and shapes and sounds I’ve never even dreamt.

Maybe in pursuit of that world, a few weekends ago on a sunny day I drove out into the countryside, starting near the home of a former client and then just getting myself lost on purpose on little winding roads rolling over hills. Every once in a while I’d pass another car and say to myself with a slightly superior air, “And to think that they’re trying to get somewhere.”

So as I’ve gotten closer to thirty, I learn more and I know more, sure, but the larger truth is that best of all are still those thin places and times and spaces when not-knowing is okay, when not-knowing is even preferable, when Mystery says, Come, child, come and see. The next decade of future is glowing strangely ahead through the fog, a deep ocean, teeming with as-yet unknown life. I’m likely just as ill-prepared for it as I was for my twenties. But that’s as it should be. Here we go and hallelujah.

Tell Stories

I’m sitting on the couch in the living room, watching out the window as cars make wide soaring turns onto our street. It’s gray out, but the sky seems to be done with both raining and snowing for the time being. 

I came home from my morning shift at lunchtime with the question looming: What would I do with the hours until 5:30 when I had to head back to work? (What should I do? What could I do?) I could’ve looked at my to-do list. I like lists. I create them, then they tell me where I am and what to do next. They’re a method of making sense, a method of self-control. Even my writing itself is frequently full of long, haphazard inventories. They help me feel like I’m managing, like I’ve got some sense of the scope of whatever’s in front of me.

But my productivity in many areas, including writing, has been low in the last few weeks. I’ve been half-a-stumbling-step ahead, rather than ten, as I’d prefer. That’s how it is sometimes.

So it’s not really lists—the nice, the neat, the orderly, the tidy—that I’ve been thinking about recently anyway. It’s stories—the messy, the splashy, the glowing, the inexplicable. Stories transcend our management.

My better moments in the past weeks have been moments of story-telling, when I’m talking to a friend and I think of something that happened two years ago, or eight, and get a couple sentences in, then stop myself, realizing what I’m about to do, and say, “Can I tell you this story?” And then, with my listener’s blessing, I go on.

And I’ll tell you something—when there’s no friend in the room, I just tell the stories to myself. I think of something a student or a cousin or a parent did some good while back and I launch into the tale in my head. When we tell stories—stories we care about—we do it actively, enthusiastically. So even just silently recounting some small narrative to myself, I can feel my eyes light up and my shoulders lean forward as if there’s an actual audience, my gray old winter heart rising.

I knew this, but I’d forgotten: stories are structures to hang our hope on. And I think this is because, unlike lists, stories are not entirely knowable. They’re positively littered with pockets of mystery and odd unsolvable detail, bits that call out our deepest human longings. To habitually tell stories—to others, to ourselves, to the wall, to the cat—renews somewhere in our souls the sense that we are perpetually on the edge of a very large story indeed, a story that we do not and cannot quite understand. It reminds us that there are plans much larger than our little lists, plans that will carry us in their arms, plans for glory and for justice and for grace. As Auden wrote, “Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety; You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.”

Anyway, I’m watching cars today. That wasn’t on the list. (And also writing. That was. That always is.)

On Going Home to Get Old

I have a client who’s almost ninety-five and recently, she’s been having a lot of trouble moving from one chair to another. She has trouble standing up from her seat on the couch, trouble shifting her tiny center of gravity so she doesn’t topple over, trouble turning around to sit on the seat of her walker so I can wheel her across the room to where her dinner waits for her on the table. “Oh, boy…” she says over and over to herself and to me, “Oh, wow.” And when she has trouble I stand there beside her, one hand on her back and one hand on her walker to stabilize each, having trouble right along with her. The whole operation is fraught with peril. 

I didn’t used to know this, I don’t think, but the great fear of the aged is not death—death looks relatively friendly to most folks in their eighties and nineties. The great fear of the aged is of isolation, of confusion, of falling, of no longer being able to see to read, of forgetting, of not being able to reach the phone or (especially) the toilet when you need them, of the embarrassment of soiling your sheets in the morning and having someone come in to clean you up.

Their fears are not lofty. They are normal and average and small and continually recurring, like most of yours and most of mine.

I realized a few days ago that, perhaps unsurprisingly considering my current job, I’ve been thinking about these basic rhythms and anxieties of old age for quite a while now. I decided back in December to move home to Greensboro come this summer, and while there were a whole host of factors influencing that decision, I think that this has been one of them.

It’s hard to explain, perhaps. I can very easily walk across a room unassisted and I expect to be able to do so for decades and decades to come. Yet every time Phyllis struggles to stand, to balance her hip bones over her foot bones, I feel an odd shivering kinship with her. It’s not compassion or even pity exactly; it’s awareness of the arc of a human life, that eventually bones settle down and calcify into dust, often while the person attached to those bones continues to live—continues to eat, sleep, defecate, carry on a conversation. I suppose I am tasting and touching and witnessing all the realities of human embodiment and place.

Not coincidentally, I’ve finally been re-reading Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow, at a very gradual pace. And while Jayber himself and Berry’s need for a more ruthless editor still annoy the bejeezus out of me at least a third of the time, the man knows how to be a human in a place, how to plant his feet in the soil his flesh will return to and live a whole life from a single spot. I’ve always found that idea compelling, but I think I might’ve forgot it for a while. It’s good to be reminded.

Anyway. This year has been a valuable detour—a gift in many ways, difficult in others, often both. I suspect it’ll continue to be all those things. I’m here for a few more months. But it makes a great deal of sense to me to take my thirty-year-old self back to the place where I was born, where I grew up full of aches and pains and joys, where I taught and learned, and dig my heels deep and make plans to be an old lady there someday. 

Plans can change, I know. But you’ve got to choose something. And perhaps it doesn’t really matter where you spend your final years, or any of your years. Wherever you are at the end of your life, you’re likely to have an over-cheerful caregiver who natters on loudly to you about the plot of The Truman Show as she pulls up your Depends like I did to Phyllis just the other day. But, then again, perhaps it does mean something to walk the same ground over and over for a whole life long in different sized shoes till you can walk no longer. I very much hope so.

January

This is my day off and the main thing I want to do today is write this. Write this and take a walk.

I spent almost two weeks at home in Greensboro over Christmas and New Year’s. There’s no real replacement for going right back to a place you’ve once lived, because only in person can you remember the little pieces of yourself that you’ve left embedded in its cracks. 

One night I was up late in the dark after finishing reading a novel and I sat on the top step of the stairs and looked out the window. I remembered how when I was a girl, in the winter, I used to wake out of a dead sleep, come blearily to this window, and squint out hopefully. Outside the yard and the cars and the trees and the pavement and the shed roof would all glint softly monochrome under the streetlights of the condo parking lot next door, and joy would wash over me. Snow. I’d go back to bed dreaming of school cancellations. Then my mom would wake me at 6:30 and I’d say, “No, but Mom, it snowed!” And she’d say, “No, it didn’t,” so I’d go to the window of the night before and find that everything was dull and damp and dark grey, with no hint of the magic I’d seen only hours earlier. 

I think a few of those mornings I went to school still fervently believing that it had snowed in the middle of the night after all, but it had melted so fast, and no one but me, alone at my window at the top of the stairs, had seen it. But as I sat on that step a couple weeks ago, I had to admit to myself fully—perhaps for the first time—that there’d never been glistening snow that had come and gone in the quiet hours with only a nine-year-old girl as witness, that what my sleepy eyes had seen was a trick of the light.

Because even twenty years later the way that streetlight sits on the yard and the cars and the trees and the pavements and the shed roof is something uncanny. It’s glittering gold that hangs in heavy wet air. When you look out that window at that time, the world is monochrome, but it’s not white like snow—it’s all other-worldly amber, born out of thoroughly unmystical street lamps crisscrossed with power lines. So perhaps it’s not so much a trick of the light as it is a gift of it.

Anyway.

I’m back in Madison now, going to work most days where I cook bacon and eggs and give nebulizer treatments and read novels in snippets and take out the trash and have the headlines of the Monday paper read aloud to me and sit listening to the puff of an oxygen machine while looking up at a framed pen drawing of a man sitting on a bench by a window, a man who is clearly waiting for something.

There is snow on the ground here—real snow, that shows up at all times of day. It brings with it a bright, dull hush—turning the sound of the world down and the light of the world up. So when I am not at work I look out the window at its whiteness and think through my novel, which is in its final stretch before I begin sending it to agents. I need to fiddle with the pacing a bit in most chapters, and write a convincing query letter and then, well, I try. I start clicking ‘Send.’

I’m hopeful about it at the moment. I’m hopeful about it the way I used to be when I’d pull myself diligently out of bed and sleep, to pad over creaking floorboards to a still, dark window. I’d rub my eyes and look. There might not be snow as I envisioned it, but there would be something waiting there for me, something worth seeing.

2021 Retrospective

I skimmed over the entries in my day journal to write this. It was a task I was dreading a bit, to tell the truth. But the more I read my little scribbled phrases, the more I found myself moved by the many small oddly-shaped pieces of the year.

The first thing I did this year, according to my journal, was “woke up sad.” And then that evening I watched Henry V with my family, with that impossibly long shot of Kenneth Branaugh carrying Christian Bale through the ruins of the battle. Within a few days, I was back in Canada, quarantining in an AirBnB, talking to friend after friend on the phone, and falling asleep at night to Derry Girls.

So that was the beginning. What followed those weeks of solitude was a sort of triptych year: five old-feeling months in Vancouver, three unrooted months all over the U.S., and four new-feeling months in Madison.

In Vancouver, I took walks and handed out books at curbside pick-up at the library.  We were still pretty tightly locked down most of those months. I missed in-person chapel desperately. But one night in February, despite it all, three friends and I got dressed to the nines, went to a dinner with wine and lamb shank, and pretended like nothing was wrong. Rach and I even shared lipstick. Also that month I did a project where I interviewed thirty people about clothing. Apparently on February 15, I interviewed three people over the phone, took walks with two friends, and watched a lot of Broadchurch. That’s about how things were. I made paper flowers for Easter with my housemates and I waited. Eventually, after much hand-wringing, I presented my final project and had champagne. Then I graduated, read a poem, and had champagne again. As COVID restrictions began to lift, I left.

I drove down to Lake Tahoe all by my lonesome and once there spent most of the two weeks either walking to the grocery store in sandals or curled up on the corner of the couch with a book or the hard copy of my novel draft. But my Granddad also drove us around the lake and the water was blue, blue, blue. Then George came and we drove Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and then home. We took pictures all along and I wrote too much and with the help of a friend put it all together into a laborious photobook as a souvenir of my summer angst. I helped my Dad make a quiz for a 4th of July party, saw old friends who treated me gently, ran into former students all properly grown up, and listened to so many audiobooks. I drove a lot of toll roads.

Then I came to Madison where I got used to baby spit-up on my clothes, read The Mennyms aloud, immediately joined the local library, watched a whole season of Survivor with Abby and Taylor and then introduced them to my favorite shows, and where, in October, my favorite thing of all was driving out to my clients’ house south of the city, through rolling green-black fields and blue skies. At work I started a project recording life stories, yet again interviewing people. I heard more about football than I ever wanted to, drove up and down the beltline so many times, tried to get used to being the help in other people’s homes, and went apple picking.

I lived in wilderness this year, though often not by choice: squinting over fields at sunsets, doing writing coaching while wandering in the woods, walking to the beach when there were beaches to walk to, hiking in Sierra meadows with my grandfather.

Yet somehow the mechanisms of life kept churning: I ate really good ice cream, read the best bits of Wind in the Willows aloud, had family video calls, left voice messages, made a new friend or several, went to the dentist, had two clothing swaps in two different countries, went on a handful of dates (not particularly successfully), ended up on Medicaid which felt jarring but not bad, and ate cheese souffle on my birthday like I did when I was a little girl. I received so much hospitality from so many people.

I was in Karen’s wedding, which was sweet but inevitably reminded me that I’m not much of a bridesmaid. I got several oil changes, and my check engine light now comes brightly on anytime I drive through mountains. I made a lot of s’mores and cooked a lot of eggs. I stayed with several cousins I hadn’t seen in years. I sat at a backyard table in Pennsylvania shelling limas from my mom’s garden, and ate a sub at a steamy, dusty gas station in Utah amidst shedding cottonwoods. And I read more than I have since childhood, discovering Kazuo Ishiguro and rediscovering Kate Atkinson and Anne herself.

Inevitably I did new things. I watched a friend play harpsichord in a garden, rescued a bird on my old college campus, visited the zoo with a toddler, injured my finger in a vacuum cleaner, gave sponge baths, made my first pecan pie, got my first COVID test, and finally posted on instagram.

And of course, I spent most of the year intermittently laboring over a single novel draft. Writing takes a long old time. I sometimes forget that. And most of my writing this year I did as duty, as task. It often seemed curiously devoid of joy.

Only in constructing this entry have I been able to admit something to myself: this year has been a lot. A lot of good, a lot of strange, a lot of difficult, a lot of a lot. And the last two or three weeks have been especially hard, so I’ve gotten uncharacteristically bad at getting back to people. Sorry about that, friends.

But the other day, I picked up the now-finished draft I hadn’t looked at since Thanksgiving. I skimmed and sometimes properly read it. I’ll tell you a secret: to my surprise, it wasn’t half-bad. All those plodding hours crouched in my chair or curled on my bed, balancing my laptop on my knees, had yielded something that was better than it had been before. So perhaps those who sow with tears will reap with shouts of joy, after all. And perhaps even 2021, in all its grainy, changeable, overwhelming detail, has yielded many things—not all things, but more than we know—that are better than they had been before.

Because today is the day the year starts to get lighter. And even now, in the darkness over Bethlehem, a star is rising.

Ordinary Time Advent

When I was a kid, like most of us, the Christmas season was about wonder and excitement. It was about the lights and the eggnog and the presents and the time off of school and the orange balls my grandma would make and that one well-worn cassette tape we had of the Grinch. 

Then I got old enough for nostalgia, maybe fourteen or fifteen, and it became about a sweet wistfulness for all of those things, for the long car rides where we read A Christmas Carol aloud, for decorating the tree together, for sitting seven to a couch with my cousins, for loud Christmas duets.

And then, as an adult, maybe sometime late in college, Christmas became about advent. It became about the waiting, the waiting for the coming promise. I would arrive weary at the end of a year, knowing I could watch light dawn gradual and gentle over the dim air around me. There were even times I arrived at the waiting of advent before the calendar did, times my longing for the squirming, wailing Hope of the incarnation was so fierce that my eyes were peeled for stars and my ears were pricked for heavenly choirs early in November.

But that has not been this year. To my slight consternation, this year, I’ve struggled to find my way into the waiting and the wanting. Nothing very adventy seems to be making its way in, no matter how I expose myself to it. Not much stirs within me. I mostly seem capable of just practically and stolidly going about my business, washing sheets and unloading dishwashers and petting cats and putting on my boots.

The other day I remembered the shepherds, though. The shepherds who are just going along, sitting out in the cold of the fields at night as they have for a thousand nights, watching out not for something big and revelatory, but for the small usual bits of danger that might hurt their flock. They are worn and sleepy, living trudgingly in the time being because that’s all they’ve ever known.

—And then a whole celestial choir full of light and cymbals and trumpets and divine voice busts the sky open and descends upon them right then and there and tells them that the most shocking and wonderful of gifts is waiting right around the corner for them, and they can take their cold, calloused, incarnate feet and run them over to the next town and there they’ll find a tiny incarnate God who will grow up to save them all—

It’s quite a turn of events. But that’s the thing about revelation—we don’t know, can’t know, what it actually is, until it breaks upon us, until it is revealed. Whether we wait in blessed expectation or are busy sweeping the kitchen floor and can’t see much past the nose on our own face, the angel’s words are just the same and just as grand and just as world-reversing: “He is Christ the Lord!”

So I think I’m settling in to be a shepherd this year, just going to the field and doing my job and putting gas in my car when it needs it. At some point, that sky will get light and that singing will start and it’ll all wash over me like a flood.