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.

Advent Poem

I went for a walk after dark just now. (Everything’s after dark these days.) On some quiet, straight street in Kerrisdale, I realized I was nursing a bit of a broken heart. Not because of anything in particular, just one of those cracks in yourself that sometimes makes itself loud and painful for an hour or a day before receding back into silence.

I told God about my little broken heart and then stomped along for another twenty minutes or so, wondering why he didn’t do anything about it. I pulled my coat around me tight even though it wasn’t that cold.

I came to a turn where the ridge of the neighborhood dropped away before me so that all the lights of downtown glittered there. I didn’t find it as beautiful as I knew I should have. I passed a Christmas tree sale, smelled Douglas fir, and was annoyed. I thought of the list of poems I’d put together for Advent and rolled my eyes at my own eager efforts. 

Then I wondered what if, just for now, I stopped trying to sort through all this peripheral beauty—the lights and the trees and the words and the colors. I was clearly too much of a philistine for all that tonight anyway. What if I just let Advent itself be the poem?

I stopped halfway down the hill. I stood still and looked out over the city again. My vision softened. I waited. 

The poem then was this: God sees that everything’s dark these days, and the Son says, Shall I go? Shall I go and live and die there? God says, Yes. So the Son shows up not in a chariot, but in a womb, is born a human baby to a wide-eyed mother and her wide-eyed Joseph. He grows up into a God-man who is good to his word: he lives and he dies and then, quite overwhelmingly, he lives again. The Son ascends back up to heaven at the end of the poem, but his coming has left every beacon burning behind him.

So if Advent is the poem, I thought, standing on the sidewalk, then we can look out over the dark landscape and see every hill ablaze with holy hope. We can run wide-eyed to those tongues of promise-fire, holding out the largeness and the smallness of our mangled, poorly-pasted hearts, and say, You’ll take this? Even this? And no matter how often we, like anxious children, repeat the question, the steadfast Advent poem will always say, Yes.

Thanksgiving Week 2020, Vancouver

In the last few weeks, new Covid restrictions have gone into place in BC. I know that as we’re moving into the dark grey part of the year here many people around me are feeling anxious, discouraged, sad. I have to confess though—I’ve been happy. The quieter things become here, the more I write, the more unnecessary layers I put on to walk in the forest, the more comfort food I eat, the more often I clean my room (it always needs it), and the more pleasant my to-do list becomes. 

On Tuesday when I went into school to work my library shift, I waited for the bus mid-morning in restless November weather. The wind blew up and the rain whipped round me as if it had something to say. I spent the first couple hours of my shift frantically pulling books for curbside pick-up. It’s paper season and since people aren’t allowed to browse the stacks themselves right now, they request whole shelf-fulls. In fact, all day I found that we were all, myself included, a little more needy than usual. People needed extra books they’d forgotten to put on hold, weren’t sure which of the multi-volume set they actually wanted and had to pause to flip through and decide, kept hanging around just to chat a little. It reminded me of some of the sweeter aspects of my job teaching—many of us, I realized, seemed to have gone back to seventeen with anxiety glowing in our eyes.

As I left for the day at three-thirty, I was rushing, juggling bags, fumbling to get my mask off and on with gloved hands. I emerged into a world that was pregnant with light. The sky had been slate grey for weeks, and now a thick orange sweetness, like honey, was leaking out not from behind the clouds, but from beneath them, nudging itself into every nook and cranny, catching in its path the last of the fall leaves which we’d stopped noticing, reflecting off sharp glass buildings with startling transcendence. One part of the sky had opened up blue and in it there was a huge rainbow, so large I could not see it end to end. As I rode home on the bus, we passed many people standing on sidewalks and medians, their faces upturned, staring at it, drinking the light.

Sometimes late at night when I curl up in bed and wait to fall asleep, as I allow my mind to toddle off in various directions, I find that I am crying. But I am thankful for the tears. For a while I couldn’t cry. And now I can. Hopkins says, Peace “comes with work to do…He comes to brood and sit.”

Erring on the Side of Kindness

I’ve been grateful recently that in art, in the making of things, we have permission to be messy. I’ve been struggling the last few days to make myself sit down and write an entry here based on an idea I had about peace. But now I’ve deleted what I had and decided to tell you stories about my grandpa instead. He was, incidentally, probably the most peaceful person I’ve ever known.

When I was in college I spent most summers in Missouri with my mother’s parents. If you’ve hung around here long enough, you probably know that. One of the things I did, every Wednesday evening, was get in the car with my grandpa and drive him an hour southeast to a town called Moberly where he would lead a Bible study at the state penitentiary. I would sit in the local YMCA with my laptop to wait for him—it was the only time I got internet all week. As we drove we would listen to the radio or to the silence or sometimes, though he was a quiet man, Grandpa would talk. 

He told me about once when he’d driven himself to the prison and accidentally left the car running and the doors open when he went in, so that it looked like a getaway car. And he told me about his friend in the Air Force, David, who had been killed during training exercises at the end of the war. But one of the stories he told me most often was about a visit he made home to see his family when he was in college.

He went home for a weekend and visited his mother and aunt. His uncle, who was a bit of a drunk and the family black sheep, lived just across the street. This uncle happened to officially be on the outs with my grandpa’s mom and aunt the weekend he went home, so to keep the peace Grandpa didn’t go see him—just waved at him when he saw him sitting out on his porch. When the weekend was over, Grandpa went back to school, and not long after his uncle killed himself.

I’m sure my grandpa understood that his uncle’s death was not his fault, yet sixty years after the fact he repeated the story to his twenty-year-old granddaughter as if it had great hold on him. He knew he had not done what he ought. It was a story which I now suspect informed much of the rest of his life. I remember that when I started teaching, my mom advised me to always “err on the side of kindness” when dealing with my students. And that’s how he lived the rest of his life in full view of his seven children and exponential grandchildren: disregarding cruel feuds, generous to the point of seeming foolishness, willing to be taken advantage of by the least of these, erring on the side of kindness, salt and light.

The last summer I spent there, Grandpa, still his same gentle, faithful self, started seeing people who weren’t there. He saw children waiting in hot minivans who needed the door opened for them, strangers—perhaps hungry—approaching the kitchen across the back field, a boy sleeping at the end of his own bed who needed a warmer blanket. He always brought our attention to their presence in his soft voice, unwilling to make the mistake he’d made decades before, determined his uncle would not spend the afternoon alone on the porch.

But my favorite memory of my grandpa is perhaps my oldest. I was maybe five, and it was summer then too. The middle child of his middle child engulfed in a sea of visiting cousins, quiet and large-eyed. And he took me in his truck, just the two of us.

Our errand, I think, was to the slaughterhouse to pick up a side of beef that had fed on their land, but that doesn’t color my recollections. What I remember is tearing down Highway F, the little pick-up catching air at every bump. My grandpa loved speed. When we got to our destination he bought me a soda from the machine—I think it was orange—a treat which overwhelmed me. As we came back, I remember soaring over the hills once again, half-full can in the cup-holder and pop sloshing in my stomach. It’s been well over twenty years now, but I would live that ride again and again and again.

Manna and the Dreamers

As of this month, this blog is a whole ten years old and I had forgotten until last week. Life goes so fast and is sometimes so strange, but I am grateful. 

Once, in my presence, my mom mentioned my blog to a friend. “Oh, what does she write about on there?” the woman asked. “She writes about herself,” my mom said, ever matter-of-fact. It’s true. I do. And when I was eighteen and nineteen, it was even more so. I wrote about the minutiae of my small-town college life, dropping friends’ names and occasional inside jokes left, right, and center. As I’m sure is patently clear, I’ve become a very serious, cautious grown-up now, so I don’t do that anymore. I’ve moved on to larger visions.

And yet. This last month or two, I have had the urge to dream big about things—about the future, about my writing, about the world in which we live. It’s an exhilarating feeling, but all this time I have been tethered by the practical and sometimes frustrating realities of my current circumstances: the closed borders, the anemic bank balances, the incorrigible uncertainties. When I was about sixteen I went through a particularly quixotic phase in which I liked to assign colors to my days when I wrote about them in my journal—and the worst of these, the days that were like regurgitated cardboard, were always tan. It is easy just now, when comparing this trudging time to the glitter of my dreams, to classify every day as tan. But to do so would not be fair or true. Because there has been manna—small, perfect morsels fallen at my feet from heaven, day by day by day.

I spent a Sunday with the house to myself, listening to podcasts and cleaning the bathroom.

The fall leaves in Vancouver this year are gold and red, which I was prepared for, but also all sorts of ombres of orange and green and blushing pink, which I wasn’t.

The other day I used my black school bag for the first time since March.

Saturday night was the birthday party of a dear friend. We huddled outside around two firepits, roasted marshmallows which singed our fingers when we ate them, listened to and half-watched a long playlist of folk tunes on Youtube. We were very, very happy.

I ride the bus some days.

I spent an hour this morning pulling books from shelves for a much-anticipated guided study next term, until I had a tall pile.

And I’ve been rewatching some of the best TV ever made: Grand Designs and Mad Men—both of which turn me into Miss Rumphius when I finish an episode, eager to step out into the world and make it more beautiful, more beautiful with lupines or homes or words.

We know what manna is because Exodus tells us how God provided for his people in the desert. They were there much longer than they ever thought they would be, wandering round and round while hoping for the promised land through decades of wilderness, eating the sweet, particular nourishment which God sent straight out of the sky. And as they fed on it, they dreamed.

Real Life

These times we’re living in feel loomingly significant and deafeningly heavy. We repeat this to each other so solemnly, over and over, and I’m sure it’s true. Yet so many little human oddities carry on not above the fray, but beneath it: lives, deaths, wrong turns, wet rain boots, dog-eared pages, uncontrollable, hiccuping laughter.

When I took the job at the care home this summer it was partly, of course, because I needed work, but also because I had a hunch that I’d get to spend my days there inundated by human reality. I suspected that nothing there didn’t matter. And I was right, I think. For a place in which, by definition, everyone was pretty obviously dying, it was so full of life.

My first day, practically before I stepped through the front doors of the place I was informed of the current crisis: the cat was missing. He was named after a tropical fruit (as apparently all cats should be) and in his adventuring outside the bounds of the property had been rescued by a too-good Samaritan and brought all the way to the SPCA across town, from which he now needed to be retrieved. Operations were thrown into chaos by this development.

Sometimes I entertain myself by imagining a series I could one day write based on my time in that place. It would be a series not of blogs or short stories, but of children’s chapter books reminiscent somehow of both Junie B. Jones and The Boxcar Children. It could include Charles and the Email He Wanted Me to Send about the Denture Cream and Ice Cream Social: Why Even Bother with Flavors Other Than Butterscotch? as well as Marilyn Thinks Her Daughter Has Stolen Her Ring, Vol 17, Part 3, and the particularly well-beloved It’s Two O’Clock and Walter Is Asking How Long Till Supper! But even such illustrious works as these could not do justice to all the tiny moving pieces.

Most of the things that mattered there, that were funny or sad or both, like most things that matter everywhere, were just so small. They were moments and ends and bits that just seemed to fit in the palm of your hand.

There was Jean, who spent everyday in the lobby with a resting facial expression halfway between a grimace and wink, who couldn’t ever seem to control her decibel level, and who could often be overheard making woeful pronouncements such as “I’m so old. I never thought I’d see you again,” or “It’s awful having to go to the toilet all the time!” 

Or there was Doreen, well under five feet tall, who giggled with mischief and threatened to punch you as a sign of affection.

Rose, who wouldn’t leave her room to see her daughter till she found out she’d brought lipstick.

James, who always wore a helmet, calling out earnestly to me once down the hallway: “Are you married? You’re tall like me!”

Or Aileen, with whom I had a daily conversation about our matching brown eyes and how we liked them.

John, who would inch down the hall clinging to his walker and his quiet dignity while I followed behind holding his oversized sweatpants up for him.

Or Sophia, who once responded to my “See you later,” by clutching my hand and asking urgently, “Why later? Why not sooner?”

Of course there was the incomparable Barbara with her sharp sense of humor and room piled full of papers and books and projects, who once suspiciously asked me if I was warm enough. When I promised her that I was, she pinched my shirt between her thumb and forefinger, exclaimed, “Thick, my arse!” and immediately began to remove her own sweater to donate to my cause.

And there was Ruby with her careful up-do and red lipstick who told me firmly one morning from her bed, “They blame it on me because they think that I’m old. And it’s true I’m very, very old. But I’m not very, very stupid.”

Much of the above is straight from my memory, but much of it is also from notes I made in real time in my journal during my shifts. One day I wrote down a quote, but something must have demanded my attention because I left it unattributed, and I have no recollection now of the circumstances. “Don’t cry. Don’t cry,” it says. I suspect it was during a family visit, but I could not for the life of me tell you whether it was a parent speaking to a child or a child speaking to a parent. But it was life, the realest of life, either way. 

One family visit I oversaw ended with tiny Lamberta tearfully hugging her own arms because she could not embrace her daughter and repeating, “Te quiero mucho, mucho, mucho, mucho. Te quiero mucho!” So if we watch, in the end it’s the littlest bits of grit and glory that make up the whole foundation of our long lives, no matter what storm rages over our heads.