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.

Storing Up Montana

Last week was reading week and I went to Montana.

At five on a Sunday morning four of us piled into my silver Kia and drove down towards the border. I sat curled in the back with a blanket a dear friend gave me years ago. The sun rose. We stopped at diners and Walmarts, made arguably too many puns about Spokane and country music, and discussed the eerie beauty of distant crowds of white windmills scattered across sharp brown hills. We crossed range after range of mountains and we crossed the Columbia, which is so blue and so wide and shadowed by walls of crumpled red rock. I breathed in America.

The whole week had both a sense of home and away to it. There was an easiness in the proximity of the friends I was with. My friend Becky is staying in a big house in Missoula, so we filled in her extra bedrooms, and spread out our school work on various couches and tables and desks, positioning ourselves so that wherever we sat, we could see the sunny blanket of snow and mountain gazing back at us through the paned windows. We went out cross-country skiing for a couple days in the middle of the week, and stayed in a picturesque little cabin that night, but beyond that there were no real plans. In the evenings, we cooked big dinners, drank wine gradually, and sprawled ourselves on the enormous sectional couch of the house’s basement. As is often true when I’m in a group, I was nearly always the quietest, but for the first time in a long time, this didn’t make me feel self-conscious or left-behind. I realized I was sitting in the midst of real—if hard-won—contentment.

Often, both in my life while I was teaching and in my life at Regent, I have found myself shuttling back and forth at record speed between two modes of being: relational and informational overload, in which I am busy doing and being all things for all people, or, when I leave that for any extended period, total solitude, in which I enter entirely into the lively twists and turns of the world within my own head. These spaces are not bad in their own right, but neither are exactly peaceful. Yet this past week was something else entirely, a space I think I’ve rarely inhabited, and which is probably more healthy than we know. It had finite limits of people and time and place, but we were aware that what we had provided for ourselves, what our God had provided for us, was abundant and, more than that, good. The trip gained its own patterns and jokes and worn footprints of house and food and snow and car and we shambled along in them.

Also worth noting: while we were in Montana, I skied. (Just cross-country, don’t get excited.) Anyone who knows me knows that I essentially never try new things, especially not physical skills. I knew this was out of my ordinary and was surprised at myself for even being willing to try, but I didn’t think much more about it than that. And then we got there and I did it, and it was massively uncomfortable. I still have bruises because I am very, very good at falling down—it feels more natural to me to fall than to stay upright—but that’s not, as you may have guessed, the sort of discomfort I mean. I am not graceful in learning, I am not graceful in being taught, I am not graceful in growth. Yet despite some pretty public frustration, I did learn, I was taught, and perhaps I began to grow. At the very least another new hole was knocked in my crusty, defensive shell, and fresh winter air came rushing in.

And now, a week later, with a bit of distance and a bit of thought, I think that was pretty good progress. Eventually, sometime the second morning of skiing, the bright cold sun, the weight of the snow on pine boughs, and the rhythmic click of my boots fastened into my skis all took over and I forgot to fall so much. So that’s something to file away, something to save, something to settle back in the attic of my mind.

I’m grateful, is all. I’m grateful for a week for the seeing of things and the breathing of things. On Wednesday morning it was very cold and very sunny. I was walking back from the washrooms to our cabin with dirty hair in loud snow pants, and a little bit of snow sifted down from the trees just ahead of me. The air caught it like glitter and it shone like anything. I couldn’t stop smiling.