America So Far

A week ago I pulled away for the final time from the townhouse in Vancouver that was my home for three years, just a little teary. I turned on the radio to distract myself from what was happening and “Another One Bites the Dust” blared at me out of the speakers. So then I laughed most of the way to Oak Street. Thank God for absurdity.

It was a warm, sunny day and my housemate had sent me on my way with a container of homemade cookies, two of which she’d carefully shaped like hearts. When I came through the U.S. border after a line-up of two cars and one woman on foot, the agent told me “welcome home,” and I felt warm, because there is no better phrase in the English language, but I also felt sad thinking of everything that was now at my back. 

I spent the day driving through cities, and finishing listening to Where the Crawdads Sing, which I started on audiobook ages ago. The Seattle skyline was showing off in the blue and the sunlight, and by the time I got down to Portland it was one hundred degrees. Hallelujah and bring on the heat! Welcome home, indeed. 

I stayed the night in a little AirBnB airstream trailer in Eugene, Oregon, which was very hippy and very relaxed and reminded me just how buttoned up and bougie the West Side of Vancouver really is. I walked to the grocery store a few blocks away and liked seeing weeds growing in the cracks of sidewalks, and barefoot tattooed folks waving to me as they watered their front yards in the evening light. The cashier, who was inexplicably wearing a black wool scarf as a face mask in ninety degree heat, was friendly and chatty and asked what I was up to later. I told him that I’d been driving all day so my plan was to collapse, then realized that he now knew I was travelling and probably had enough context to look down at the three items he’d just bagged for me and know they would comprise tonight’s dinner and tomorrow’s breakfast. This felt strangely vulnerable and I escaped self-consciously back out into the warmth of the evening.

My second day I kept driving south. In retrospect, I could have taken I-5 down to Tahoe that day. It would have taken longer, but I could have done it. However, I took a more direct route, on a patchwork of state highways and byways and roads that were merely roads. Much of it was through National Parks at the beginning, marked by the familiar wooden signs with yellow lettering. I stopped at a little espresso stand in Willamette National Forest for a coffee and the woman there called me sweetheart, which is almost as good as “welcome home.” My check engine light came on right before I crossed into California and I pulled over in what I knew would be one of the last towns for a long while, and a man at the auto shop kindly checked it for free, said I would be fine for now, and sent me on my way. 

From there on out it was vast valleys nestled in rocky ranges, sparse forest, and great shining, still mountain lakes, for hours and hours. My housemates and I had watched Nomadland the night before I left Vancouver and now I thought of it frequently. There was often not a shoulder to the road, rarely another car, and the sun continued hot, making heat waves on the pavement, a shimmering landscape of blue and green and black and grey and dusty orange. I ignored my back that ached from sitting, listened to an audiobook of Anne of Green Gables, stared at the miles of stunning wilderness, and cried harder than seemed reasonable when Matthew Cuthbert died. Signs warning that this was fire country flicked past me, and once I started, thinking there were flames rushing behind me, but it was only the bright yellow line of the road. I was more anxious than I realized. Between Eugene and Reno I went through maybe six towns in the course of about 400 miles. 

By dinner time I had come down the incline into the Lake Tahoe basin, my place of port for a few weeks. I had dinner with my granddad and his wife, then walked the few blocks back to the little family cabin off Ski Run where I’m staying. I took a bath, fell into bed, and wondered what I had done.

I’ll be in Tahoe till late June, then my brother will meet me and we’ll do the cross-country drive at a leisurely pace, staying with family most of the way. I’ll spend July mainly in Greensboro, and then after a friend’s wedding at the beginning of August, I’ll drive north to Madison, Wisconsin, where I’ll move into some friends’ basement, look for work that pays a decent wage so I can work on paying off loans, and settle in to finish revising this novel and looking for an agent in earnest. And that’s it, that’s the whole plan. I’m living very skint and a little rootless for the foreseeable. And I have only the vaguest idea of what comes after.

As I’ve concocted these plans over the last several months, I’ve been excited about them–they felt like freedom, like hope, like adventure. But my isolated drive through the remote, seemingly immeasurable Sierra wilderness had gotten deep under my skin. As I lay in bed I was afraid, very afraid that I was a fool. That the uncertain, blank canvas of the years ahead signaled that I was walking off a cliff. At root I hate not having a plan or being in control. It took me a very long time to fall asleep.

But the next day was better. It’s beautiful here. I step out onto the front porch and the air smells of warm, sunny pine. And South Lake Tahoe’s a resort town, so everyone (but everyone) is on vacation, in shorts and sundresses and crop tops and flip-flops, walking to the grocery store for pasta and cheap wine, wandering to the beach like there’s no timeline because there isn’t. The sand at the shore is coarse gold, not the fine, ethereal grey you find on the beaches of Vancouver. Every day has been sunny and soft.

So the last week has been gently livable. I’ve walked to the grocery store a few times myself, marching out in my sandals through dust and sun and sugar pine needles, and even to the lake once. I’ve jumped into revision plans for the novel, scribbling in all directions on sheets of paper ripped from my New Testament notebook, facing up to the number of characters I need to do justice to. I’ve watched Taskmaster and Grand Designs while eating grilled cheese sandwiches, and read bits of mystery novels as well as Spoon River Anthology.

The anxiety which surfaced on my lonely drive lives on, and so, in a related and equal way does the missing of my life and people in Vancouver. Both have been coming out in emotional bursts, like I have a release valve somewhere which I can turn off and on mainly as I please (anxiety and sadness on tap!) But just because they are voices I can hear does not mean they are the only ones. 

For my birthday, my sister gave me a copy of Adorning the Dark, Andrew Peterson’s book on creative vocation. It felt appropriate to read it now as the point of the next couple years of adventurous living is to lean into the writing, to try to make it actually happen. I’ve read a few chapters, and it’s been full of good reminders. “Follow the stars, not the flotsam,” he says. On Sunday, I went with my grandparents to a concert on the north side of the lake, up in Incline Village. As we drove along the eastern shore for nearly an hour, the wind had picked up, and I could not stop staring at the water. Hundreds of little whitecaps ducked and sped across the blue in the midday sun, so deeply, truly, richly blue, that it made you wonder whoever could have dreamed such a color, and not only dreamed it, but filled a whole lake with it.

So I will follow this for now, these pleasant lines in pleasant places.

Gold Shoes and Hand-Holding

I write to you from a quiet house where a little dog lies next to me on my bed. The room is a half-packed, unlaundered disaster zone. I leave on Tuesday, which is surreal, but I also feel very full.

I don’t really have anything to say about any of that. I just have two things to tell you.

The first is this: I’m getting rid of my gold shoes. If you know me, you probably know the ones. They’re sparkly Steve Madden loafers, entirely covered in spiky gold studs. My sister found them for me at a thrift store when I was in college. Once I wore them to church, and a little boy who was about two or three walked up to me and stared down at them in awe. “They’re beautiful…” he whispered. And he threw himself down on his tummy on the carpet and embraced them. He never once looked up at my face, but that’s okay. I understood. The first day I’d ever worn them my feet bled, and I panicked not about the blisters but about whether the blood would stain them. There’s just something about them that inspires adoration, devotion, respect. Later, I sometimes wore them while teaching and a student, usually male, would comment on their sharpness. “Yeah,” I’d say, “They’re dangerous,” and I’d mime a little kick. He’d then look nervous for the rest of class. I wore them here in Vancouver too, especially at first, leaving them inside the front door of any house I was visiting according to polite Canadian custom, in the pile of everyone else’s Blundstone boots, loud and brash in the middle of all the slick brown. I’ve had them for ten years now and when I mentioned offhandedly a couple weeks ago to a group of friends that it was probably time to get rid of them, the idea was met with shock and flat denial. But despite that, it is time. Spikes and glitter have worn off in spots, and in one place beneath, a rip is growing in the fabric. I wear things hard. But I’d like to think that’s a sign that I’ve lived in them, properly lived. I look at them and am satisfied.

The other thing I wanted to tell you is that the other day I was sitting at Quilchena Park, waiting for a friend, and a little girl and her grandfather passed me. She was maybe six or seven, and they weren’t talking but were clearly headed somewhere on purpose. As they walked away across the grass I saw that each kept reaching out for the other’s hand, in an absent-minded, habitual gesture, but they took it in turns, so they kept missing each other. Him and then her and then him and then her. I couldn’t see their faces of course, but from my increasingly distant vantage point, neither seemed to mind the failure of their little attempts. They were focusing on their destination, wherever that was. They’d find the other’s hand eventually. When they really, really needed it.

On Packing

I’ve been wandering my way towards writing this entry for several days now.

Sometime around a week ago (I’ve forgotten how long) I decided I was going to stop overthinking things. And by things, I mean leaving Vancouver and Regent and my life here, and the responsibility of saying goodbye, and trying to do a good job of it. I’m just going to live the last few weeks here, and then leave.

This decision was concurrent with the realization that the thing that matters most to me in leaving is packing. I like sorting—I always have. And in packing I get to sit in my room literally sorting through the pieces of my life: the clothes, and the books, and the papers, and the birthday cards, and the travel mugs, and the toiletries I thought I would use but definitely never did, and the bobby pins, and the shoes, and the map of Canada that my American brother gave me, and the jackets, and the novel drafts, and the piece of paper from a few months ago on which I drew multiple graphs charting my levels of happiness over the course of different semesters in Vancouver which perhaps proves that my choice to stop overthinking was long overdue. 

So I like packing. That’s one thing. I like sitting with the windows open in the afternoon sunshine and touching each of my possessions after a year without touch, putting them in piles to give away or keep or send on to the next place, telling the housemate on my bed what each of them is and why it is that way. It’s almost as good as having everybody I love in the same big room and getting to share a secret conspiratorial grin with every one in turn and feel so glad to know them.

Because that’s the other thing: it’s occurred to me that probably the best way of doing justice to my life and times at Regent and the channels they have made in me is not through thinking or talking or even poetry, but just through action, through continuing to do the thing I’ve been doing. I don’t need to make or dig for meaning, because I’m already surrounded by it. It’s in the mementos that crowd my room and in the ongoing everyday actions of my housemates and my friends and even the dog. It’s in the food and the drink and the spring leaves and the wind and the familiar sidewalks. I’m in it and under it and on it.

The last blog entry I wrote before I arrived here in 2018 was called “Seismic Shifts,” about God moving the ground beneath my feet, all of our feet, and from my little vantage point of clutter in the pale pink bedroom with the high window I can see that that divine movement has unearthed so much color and raw glory in the last three years. So as I leave again, I’m happy to simply trust the slow, dusty movements beneath me in their good work.

Yet I must say, in a certain way I feel much more as if I’m headed towards something than I did when I left Greensboro to come to Vancouver. I’m heading towards home, wherever that may be.

Talking to My First-Year Self

If you read these often enough, you may remember that I have a journal where I like to write three little lines about what I did every day. I’ve done it for about a decade now. Its main purpose is to be able to look back to a month ago or a year ago or three, and see what surprises or mishaps I felt were worth recording. But I’ve found that in the last year I’ve stopped reading back so much. I still dutifully write down the small happenings of the day, but I can’t bear to look back at the doings of pre-COVID Alice, because I find myself thinking that she didn’t know. She just didn’t know.

Yet over the last few weeks as I’ve presented my final project, wrapped up last assignments, turned twenty-nine, and realized how very numbered my days in the Regent building are, I’ve been thinking back to my past self quite a lot, involuntarily. Specifically, to the Alice of fall 2018, the one who walked in bone-weary and wide-eyed in her brave gold shoes, unconcerned over whether she would make a single friend. And I’ve begun to wonder, as I squint through the fog of this month’s impending goodbyes and the summer’s personal tectonic shifts, if she’d have anything to offer me. What if she did know some things, things I’ve since forgotten?

So I imagine that she and I could find each other and sit down on a bench together in some wood between the worlds, some place between then and now, and have a talk. The trees in that place are very tall and let in a lot of light, and where we sit we can hear voices in the distance, but they never get any closer. It is warm and still there, and we are dressed for August. I begin by telling her all about how tired I am here in Spring of 2021 and all the things that have made me that way. 

I am trying to impress her with my feelings, but she is difficult to impress. She only nods placidly. So I up the ante and tell her that in my old age (read: in the last few months) I have become bitter and sometimes angry.

She does seem surprised by this and turns to face me fully. “I don’t know about that,” she says.

I look down at my hands. “You don’t know about a lot of things,” I say to her in triumph.

She grins and laughs. “Yeah, ain’t that the truth?” Annoyed that her self-deprecation is disrupting my narrative, I slouch down against the wooden bench. She sees this, and tries again, her voice low and earnest, “Listen, you can withstand a lot, kiddo. You know that.”

“But I shouldn’t have to,” I say.

“Maybe,” she says. “But it’s not forever.” I stay very still and quiet, brushing my bare feet back and forth against the soft grass. I know what’s coming next. Crouched sideways on the bench, knees poking towards me, she continues, “Do you remember how when you first came here, you didn’t think you’d ever really be happy again? Like you didn’t even know it was possible?” 

“Yeah,” I say, because I do remember.

Sounding awed because she is talking about her own present, she says, “And then you were. Just like that, you were happy.”

I let my tight-folded arms drop into my lap. “Yeah, I remember. It was like…fresh air.” She waits. She knows me, so she waits. At last I say, “I do think I’ll be happy again. I don’t worry about that now.”

“You’re not scared,” she says. It’s not a question.

I let my feet drop through the grass to meet the cool soil. “Not most of the time, no. Just overwhelmed. And small.”

She shrugs. “Small is good.” 

“Small is good,” I admit. It’s not really worth fighting her. She knows I know she’s right.

We sit there being small for a little while. And then she speaks up again, her voice slow because she has another idea. “When you first came here you could only process everything by writing poems. Because you could only understand one new thing at a time. And you were content to see just the trees and not the whole forest. Could you try that now?”

I think for a while, honest thinking. “I could try,” I tell her at last in a little voice.

“Trying is all you have to do,” she says.

“I forget that.” Then I smile, which is a relief to my whole body, and add, “But I forget a lot of things, I guess.”

She twists her body on the bench to face forward again, clearly pleased with herself and her work. “So I came to remind you. Trying and failing is my area of expertise, you know.”

“Oh, I know.” I laugh at her and she laughs at her.

We are quiet again and she glances over at me appraisingly. She’s such a stare-er, I realize. More than I ever knew when I was her. Not sure if I’m joking or not, I ask, “So is my sadness interesting?”

“Not very,” she says, looking away.

I feel a rush of affection and shake my head. “Bless,” I say.

She glances back in slight horror. “Do you say that now?”

“Oh, I say that now!” I tell her.

“Lord, help,” she says.

Practicing Resurrection

On Tuesday, I will finish my second semester of grad school and on Wednesday I will turn twenty-seven, which my sister and I used to joke was the age of perfection. It was a funny joke back then, and, frankly, is an even funnier joke now.

Last year on my birthday I wore a pink dress and it bucketed rain. It came down in a long morning deluge which made everyone grumpy. Then, in the afternoon, my fourth period students threw me a surprise party which I did not manage to be surprised by, complete with hats, a shiny balloon, and a cookie cake. My fifth period, not to be outdone, hastily ordered pizza. (My erstwhile birth functioned as an excellent excuse for all sorts of distractions.) I wanted to hug all of them, but I didn’t. I just smiled. It was an odd day and a good day.

The year and the ground which have passed under my feet in the interim have been dizzying. A few times in the last week in particular, as I have reflected, I have wanted to pinch myself—maybe I actually physically have pinched myself once or twice. (I can’t remember.) Is all this real? Did I really run away from home, and begin to do new things one after another in such rapid succession till it became habit? I want to check the mirror sometimes. Am I the same person? Are my eyes still brown, and when did the fear behind them stop running the show every day?

My rate of change over the last eight months has perhaps been privately alarming, but it is also much more than that. I found myself telling a friend the other day that being here, at Regent, in Vancouver, in a place which tastes different on my tongue and sounds different to my ears, something about it makes me actually want to heal. Not just make agreeable noises and blog entries, but take my hands away from the festering parts of myself which I’ve been covering, and say, “Alright, Lord. Come in at long last. Come in and perform the alchemy. Make me new, though for all my talk of Spring, I’m not even sure what that means.”

I’ve lived a fair number of Easter Sundays by now, have remembered the Resurrection over and over, but this one is softly special. I don’t just believe the promise of new life today—I want it.

Why do you seek the living among the dead?

Rise heart; thy Lord is risen.

Seismic Shifts

In less than a week I move to Vancouver. This is the age of change, of the ground moving beneath my feet, but not mine only. Just in the last week or two there have been shifts around me as well: coming marriages, births, deaths, my dad turning sixty, my sister able to go back to London at long last, and two weddings to attend in the next three days. Time is always marching on, of course, but occasionally there are days when we actually feel that, in all its wind and its weight.

Last night my family had a goodbye party for me, which was very sweet. Many kind people prayed for me and we ate chocolate mousse and drank what rosé there was in the house so my parents wouldn’t be stuck with it.

Then afterwards I couldn’t sleep, maybe because all the changing and churning of the world beneath me had gotten into my bones and was making them ache. I don’t know exactly. But I got up and read the beginning of the book of Matthew.

It starts with a list of genealogies: marriages, births, deaths, tectonic plates grating against one another as the earth turns round and round, and then it announces the coming of Christ.

An angel arrives and tells Joseph that everything Mary has been saying is true: she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins. Beneath the heaving, quaking breaths the earth keeps taking, there is a fiery core, a binding promise, a wonder: He will save his people from their sins.