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.

A Child at the Ocean

I went to Galiano Island with a couple sweet friends for a few days over the weekend and stayed one day longer than they did. First thing Sunday morning, I dropped them off at the ferry, then drove back to the cabin, took a bath, and climbed down the rocks to the water in my bare feet and big orange sweater.

I felt sad—sad that my friends were gone, sad about everything—but I was grateful to be sad. I am beginning to think of sadness as a privilege. Pain and fear are universal, but sadness can only be where happiness has been first. More and more I think the two are near cousins.

It was chilly on the rock. The tide was low and fog mixed with smoke from the fires in Washington sat on the water, painting all things a thick, soft grey. As I sat three otters swam up right beneath me, slithering and dunking in and out of the water, then when they reached the shore, shaking the wet out of their eyes like dogs, and gleefully crunching up some kind of snack they had found on the rocks just below. The mother caught sight of me almost immediately, kept an intent watch on me for about thirty seconds and then decided I was too close for comfort and led her little ones away. They went with her, happily jumping on her back and somersaulting and sliding back into the water again.

I thought about how little I knew about these creatures—the only vocabulary I had to describe them was hackneyed and uncertain—how little I knew about any of this. I didn’t even know how the tide worked. I felt like a child come to the ocean for the first time, but with no parent by my side to turn to and pepper with questions: why does the tide ebb away like it does? And more importantly, where does it go when it leaves? Does all the water that was here just tip over to the other side of the ocean—as the water pulls back from us, it rises on some distant beach in Asia? I imagined the Pacific like a bowl, a cradle, rocked daily back and forth by the hand of God, salt and water and life sloshing up first on one side and then the other. What lullaby did he sing over us? Was it the plaintive seagull cries wheeling above me or something even beyond that?

Part of me felt I should rein in my flight of imagination—how could I not know the science behind the tides, and who was I to make up fairy tales in their place? But I couldn’t help myself. Crouching there on that great grey rock, just above where the barnacles began, I was the youngest I had been in a long time—the saddest and the least certain and the most content. It occurred to me that I hadn’t known that I would have to become younger to grow up—but I ought to have known. I was told all along, unless you become like little children

Things I Google When I Write

Over the last few weeks, as I’ve been finishing up the last few chapters of my novel draft, I’ve conducted a bit of an experiment. Years ago I noticed that I need to have wifi when I write because I need to have Google. I’m constantly fact-checking, looking up images to help me with descriptions, and using the internet as an all-purpose thesaurus. (Any word I type into the search bar now, Google immediately suggests I follow up with “synonym.” It’s done that for years. It knows me.)

So just for my own entertainment (and now yours!) I’ve been keeping a little log of every odd thing I find myself looking up just so I can finish the sentence at hand. This list below has absolutely been edited for brevity: it’s about half of its original length and the vast majority of what I cut was just me searching for synonyms of everyday adjectives like “angry” or “large.”

The point is, if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to write a novel, here you go, enjoy. There’s a good chance it’s both weirder and duller than you ever imagined.

Week One

learned helplessness ᷸ tree nymph ᷸ I saw you lying in your own blood ᷸ Ezekiel 16 ᷸ Toyota Camry 2010 ᷸ ten reasons why ᷸ Netflix shows spring 2018 ᷸ Cookout milkshakes ᷸ pedestrian ᷸ hieratic ᷸ when do you need to start mowing your lawn each year ᷸ Jonah and the whale ᷸ Reilly ᷸ strikethrough on google docs ᷸ Hard Times ᷸ high school economics textbook pdf ᷸ NCDMV wildflowers ᷸ phoenix plural ᷸ semiannual ᷸ biannual ᷸ what’s the word for once every two years ᷸ performance venues in london

Week Two

Prace ᷸ April calendar 2018 ᷸ popular insults ᷸ Victoria and Albert tattoos ᷸ Victoria and Albert museum tattoos nearby ᷸ Albert Memorial to gold tattoos ᷸ Phil Robertson ᷸ Bill Robertson ᷸ ruefully ᷸ national youth choir ᷸ famous people with curly hair ᷸ most expensive dog ᷸ Madrigal ᷸ teenage girl bible study handouts ᷸ Hyde Park ᷸ map of where they say sneakers ᷸ 15 times 8 ᷸ 90/15 ᷸ Millie Bobby Brown

Week Three

TSA ᷸ soap bible study acronym ᷸ roll ᷸ benaline ᷸ kensington gardens london carriage ᷸ Museum of torture London ᷸ latte/espresso machine ᷸ does matte lipstick have a smell ᷸ Abide with Me ᷸ Psalm 49 ᷸ towels for babies ᷸ Optinos ᷸ dress circle ᷸ he never failed me yet history ᷸ Altoids ᷸ he never failed me yet lyrics ᷸ Borough market ᷸ Golden benchmark

Week Four

Consortium ᷸ Thank you for giving to the lord ᷸ Baby names 2009 ᷸ smelliest sandwich ᷸ Let us die to make men free ᷸ what does it take for a building to be condemned ᷸ what is larry ᷸ rain falls on the just and the unjust ᷸ Character awards ᷸ Home depot locations ᷸ end of year slideshow soundtrack ᷸ width of a gymnasium ᷸ Voyeur ᷸ forest fire before and after pictures

Old Age and the Point of Being

Back in July, I started a part-time job in a nursing home across the bridge on the North Shore, up in West Vancouver. It’s a long-term care facility, which means that many if not most of the residents I interact with have dementia. Some of them are pretty mobile and cognizant, but some sit in the same spot all day in a hallway or by a TV, needing help to eat, to use the toilet, to move from wheelchair to bed and back again.

I spend a lot of time wiping off chipped polish with acetone and repainting nails in colors that make ladies feel like themselves, walking slow, bent folks down long corridors to and from precious COVID-time family visits. Sometimes I sit by someone and fill in a mandala with bright colored pencils or scoop ice cream while dozens of eager faces line up, eyes fastened to the tub of butterscotch. Sometimes I just crouch and hold a hand. I’ve never been so frequently snapped at or so frequently thanked without really deserving either.

Inglewood has over 200 residents and on the weekends when I work, alongside the medical care staff, there are usually only four or five recreation staff members like me around, so I spend a fair amount of time rushing from place to place. The residents watch as I pass them by. Some smile and wink at me, though they no longer have the cognitive capacity to learn and retain my name. Others sometimes call out as I go—thoughts many of us harbor anxiously in the back corners of our minds all our lives, but which have now become so central to them in these final years that they speak them aloud in desparation. Can you help me? This is such a long hallway. I need to go to the washroom. I live here? What should someone do who feels lost? Will I be okay? What’s next? Then when will I go home?

They’ve returned, some of them, to watching adult life from the sidelines, like children crouching at the top of the stairs when they’re supposed to be in bed, catching glimpses of what goes on in the party below through the slats in the railing, trying to make sense of what is happening and why they are no longer able to participate. Inside these people, of course, are decades’ worth of their memories and lives and skills and selves, which still flicker out of even the most confused in occasional bright flashes. One lady I walked back to her room in her closed unit spoke to me nonstop in Romanian, and kept hugging me and kissing me as if I were family. She gave hugs as if she’d given thousands and would never lose the talent.

It is easy and often sweet when talking about old age to draw upon these vulnerable, childlike images. In fact, the comparison with childhood is nearly unavoidable, because the similarities of need, fragility, and even innocence are so obvious. And to think like that helps us to care for our elders with gentleness and patience. But there is a glaring, uncomfortable difference between the old and young with which we must reckon. 

Neither the very old or the very young are “useful” or have anything of practical value to contribute to the world—they are, in fact, a drain on tangible resources and energy. However, our culture understands that children make this worth our while because they are bursting with potential—tomorrow, we hope, they will serve their community in great and glorious ways. But what about these toothless folks with ninety years to their name seated on blue incontinence pads in their wheelchairs? What’s the point of them? What work will they do? They have no potential. They’re all used up and many of them, painfully, know it.

This hard truth must be faced because none of it is theoretical. This is our parents, our grandparents, and one day it’s us.

A few weeks ago I brought a tiny old lady named Belva downstairs for a visit. We were a few minutes early and since this wasn’t her regular unit, I took her around for a little field trip. We went out into the back garden to see the bright flowers, which made her light up, and we returned more than once to the large cage of colorful, twittering birds just inside the main lounge. As she stared at them, she whispered to me, “Oh, this is a good place.” And it was a very good place indeed, I could see. It was a place which had no time for measuring the relative usefulness of Belva or of her birds or even of me, young and productive as I am. Her place contained only the beauty of the moment and the joy inherent in existence. She was awed by the birds, and then twice over, she was awed by the automatic door when I pressed the button, and applauded as it did its work. She said that it was “wonderful.”

The work of the aged, the point of them, is the same as the ultimate central point of all of us. They have been made, and now their work is merely to be. Humans were made not to produce, but to be, just as hands, I am increasingly beginning to think, were made for holding. Hands are useful and important in a myriad of other ways, certainly, but to be held is their highest calling.

Selfish Art

I’ve just got back from a walk in the rain—real rain, not Vancouver’s usual lazy drizzling nonsense. I am damp and happy. I am happy about the wet rivulets which poured off of my umbrella, and I am happy about the squishing sound my boots made in the grassy mud as I crossed the school field. 

I am also two-thirds of the way through a first novel draft. It’s been a push. It feels like work, because it is work. And yet. I’ve been reminded lately that it’s going to be worth it. It’s going to be worth it because when I’m finished, I get to read it. I can talk all day long about writing as communication to others, as taking the pictures and ideas and worlds inside my head and putting them in someone else’s using only the magic of words on a page, and I believe in all that, I do. But ultimately, in the moment, in the midst of the act of creation, I am nearly always writing for myself.

I create to respond to the truth and beauty I see, to call to it across the void, to expand upon it with words, not primarily so that others can understand it, but so that I can. I’ve written here before about how when I reread my own work, I often find that I’m preaching to myself, particularly if I’m coming back to it after some time. I only really know my own process, of course, but  if I had to guess, I’d say most art that is actually worthwhile is made with this self-guided focus, because such singularity of purpose is able to fully serve the art itself, and treat the outside audience as a peripheral, secondary concern. When you are in the midst of making, the fact that others may get to enjoy what you’ve made is just a happy byproduct. In that instant, you need no audience but yourself.

To consult your own instincts and pleasure so centrally as you create seems like a foolishly selfish approach, and I would be tempted to dismiss it as that, except that this is exactly how God created. He made a world and a people diverse, interesting, strange, and beautiful not because this was correct or necessary but because he knew that to do so was good. Really, I suspect he made his creation good partially just so that he could have the joyful experience of calling it so, over and over. In Orthodoxy, Chesterton imagines that every day when the sun rises, God claps his hands and cries, “Do it again! Do it again!” No one takes more delight in his own art than God.

So I will allow myself to be happy about my own words on a page in the same way I am happy about a long-awaited sloppy rain, because I can receive them and because they are good. A couple months after moving to Vancouver I wrote a little note for myself and put it on my wall. I no longer have any idea what it was originally in response to, and I sometimes forget about it for weeks at a time, but every time I do reread it, it feels more necessarily true than the time before. 

It says, You no longer need to be your own maker and taskmaster. Jesus has stepped in. You are free of the tyranny of self. The Lord has an infinitely better plan, and, moreover, he is gracious. Your only call is to wrap his gifts in rejoicing and offer them back.