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.

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.

Home Nostalgia

I am halfway through a two-week-and-change long Christmas at home in the States, and probably predictably, I’ve been thinking about familiarity and nostalgia a lot.

Nostalgia has been a part of me all of my life. When we were little girls, my sister and I would lie awake in bed remembering details of trips and Christmases and classmates and cousins, so I was well-versed in this sort of wistfulness even before I was a teenager. Then in college, when I started this blog, I began to use nostalgia consciously and regularly in my writing, opening it reverently like a map, searching through the criss-crossed veins of my life for the little arrow that announced, “YOU ARE HERE.” And now I realize more and more that everywhere, but especially in my writing, nostalgia is simply part of the air I breathe. I approach all of my doings and beings as things I do remember, will remember, want to remember.

But even with all this careful remembering, things fall off the edge of consciousness at times, and when they are brought back to the center of my vision, I jump just a little. Even just over a week in, this visit has been full of familiarities I did not expect, things I did not realize I was homesick and starving for till I was in their midst. There’s the way my otherwise well-mannered family confidently talks over one another, sometimes all five of us at once (I wonder who we think is listening?), and there’s the bright sunshine-gold of the upstairs hallway in my childhood home, and then there’s simply the neighborhood I grew up in with all its sweet, porched houses and their thoughtful brickwork, bright, paned windows, and occasionally peeling trim. These houses look like they are loved or at least were loved once as opposed to many of the homes on the west side of Vancouver some of which look like the people who built them never even considered loving them at all.

But the thing which hit me with the largest, most pungent wave of nostalgia was the day after my cousin’s wedding in Houston when nearly thirty of my family crowded into the living room of my uncle’s AirBnB and sang Christmas carols out of the old books from my grandma’s house. As we always used to, we sat all over couches and the floor, leaning against arms of chairs and one another’s knees, and worked our way from the youngest person in the room to the oldest, each of us choosing a carol in turn. I think we nearly ran through the whole book. We sounded good, especially at the beginning before our voices got tired. No experience has ever felt as well-worn and comprehendable to me as that one, despite the fact that, with the exception of gentle teasings and confusions as we made our way through the age line-up, all our words were laced through with the mystery of the incarnation.

A few weeks ago, during a class discussion, a professor gloomily announced to us that nostalgia was “a hell of a drug.” I know what he was getting at, that it can act as an excuse for unhelpful or even destructive patterns, but it will come as no surprise that I’m sitting here now fully prepared to gently push back at some of the assumptions lying perhaps unexamined beneath that statement.

To believe that nostalgia is inherently dangerous because it lulls us asleep misses the point of nostalgia. The only nostalgia which does this is a nostalgia which idealizes its object, but the purpose of nostalgia, the reason I cling to it, the reason it fills so many songs and poems and Christmas ornaments, the reason it sticks to our ribs like it does, is that if we’re willing to look right through the beloved familiar with eyes wide open, nostalgia can wake us right up to what’s on the other side.

The reason I love the color of the upstairs hallway in my parents’ house is not only because it is bright, but because I chose it. One summer when I was in my late teens, I was left home alone for a week, and with high hopes for my productivity, my parents left me with the request that I would repaint the hallway. So I went to Home Depot, chose paint the color of sunshine, and spent three days rolling it onto textured puce walls that hadn’t been touched since the seventies. It took four coats, partly because of the vomitous color I was covering, but also because I kept painting secret messages for myself in large letters and then needing to cover them up fully. I giggled a lot. I remember feeling happy and independent and capable and full of promise. I am nostalgic about those walls not because I want to numb myself to adult life or be seventeen again (God forbid!) but because to me, they sing, they shout with hope and fresh life. And that’s a lesson I can stand to remember again and again.

Oh, give me the chance to do my very best.

Within Love

I’m a little hectic right now, though the Fall term hasn’t started yet: vaguely over-committed with just one too many writing projects, one too many side jobs, one too many email inboxes, one too many friends. Wait, no, that can’t be right—but I can’t find my spare car key right now. That’s the main thing. (No, no it’s not.)

Particularly when I feel like this, it is easy to forget. It is easy to forget the real main thing: to love the Lord your God. And when I realize I’ve forgotten—well, realizing somehow does not fix things. I say, Alright now, Alice, remedy the situation. Learn to love. Do it right, for God’s sake. And I come at the thing from the direction of my love instead of his, which is magnificently ineffective.

Then yesterday, I came across this in Lewis’ “Weight of Glory.” It was not a lightning-bolt, but instead a low, rumbling comfort, like thunder from the far side of the mountain.

How God thinks of us is not only more important, but infinitely more important. Indeed, how we think of Him is of no importance except in so far as it is related to how He thinks of us[…]to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son—it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.

So it is. And so I’ve been remembering (the proper, continual remedy for spiritual forgetfulness.) I’ve been remembering the taste of things. I wrote a series of poems for a course I took on food last Fall about how the memories which are inevitably tied to certain foods for each of us can serve as a gateway into the transcendent. Predictably, a year later, I am actually learning that lesson for myself. A few times in the last few months, I have tasted something and “Oh!” to myself. All simple things, sometimes absurdly simple: raw garlic, plain olive oil, okra fried in cornmeal. All tastes of my childhood, of a hot kitchen with shiny pitted floorboards, of something sizzling and something boiling and then my mother’s cold, laughing hands on the back of my neck just to make me jump. These things are particular to my sensibilities and my past, of course, but though yours may be different, we all have them. These are the tastes of love, and not just its outer rim either. These savory-sweet, dizzying flashes are from the inner core of love, the part we are rarely ever brave enough to acknowledge, the heavy part, the honeyed part, the realm of holy delight.

And though I so often forget, I’m certain: this place we are shy of talking or even thinking about, this buoyant golden heart of God’s love, is where we came from in the first place, our actual homeland, the place we belong even now. Funny thing, but so it is.

Classes start in a couple weeks, so things will fall into place soon enough. The car key will turn up. The sun is out and the sun makes things grow.

Restoration

2019 has begun quietly. (For me, at least–I can’t speak for you.)

I’ve been home for a while now and will be home a little while longer. Events worth noting have included lots of time spent at Caldwell (more than I intended, really), lots of time spent with friends from high school and before (more than I expected, really), a brief, exciting ambulance ride to the ER (I’m fine, totally fine), and a trip with my family to Staunton to see Shakespeare (because that’s what we do).

If you don’t know anything about this Staunton place (which probably just means you haven’t known me very long) it’s right in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, which might be the most beautiful place in the whole American South. It’s all close winding creeks and green grass and steep, steep hills woven over with blankets of quiet tree branches, surrounded by wave upon wave of blue mountain ridges. Even its dilapidated buildings with cracked shutters and mossy, caving roofs are soul-wrenchingly picturesque. During the Civil War they called it the breadbasket of the Confederacy because its fields were so fertile, and, perhaps, for me, more than any other place in the South it seems to be marked like Cain, to be aware of both its beauty and its sin, but unable to reconcile them. I think it is what my friend O’Connor called “Christ-haunted.” It is a place that makes me want to sit very still.

To that end, I spent a lot of time over Christmas and the days that followed, as we went up to those mountains and down into that green valley, thinking about restoration. It showed up in my poetry reading for Christmas day and then I thought of it again as we walked through and over the cemetery full of lilting nineteenth century gravestones by the big Episcopal church in Staunton. I wondered about those graves, how they lay so still and quiet and temporary. How the promise of Christmas is not brand-spanking-newness, something never-before-seen, but even more miraculous: God making skin-to-earth contact, causing the lame feet to run at last, the long-silent lips to speak, and the dead to sit up in their grave-clothes and breathe fresh air. He makes the first things new and whole again.

Then on Saturday night we went to see Winter’s Tale, which begins so grim. “A sad tale’s best for winter,” Mamillius says. Leontes bursts out in a fit of unwarranted jealousy so lethal that by the end of the third act his wife and son are dead, and his best friend and daughter are so far banished that they are presumed so. But then in the final scene of the play, which takes place sixteen years later, the statue of Hermione, penitent Leontes’ now long-dead queen, steps down off its pedestal and takes him by the hand, alive again. He turns to the audience, to the heavens, to anyone who will listen, and says with awe, “O, she’s warm!”

So this theme of restoration kept coming up this weekend, but I’m not sure if I have anything to say about it except that it is. It exists. It’s all true. “She’s warm.”

Happy New Year.

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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.

Heartland

Last Friday, I got home from what turned out to be a whirlwind tour of the American midwest. I was gone for only about a week and a half and in that time managed Dayton (sort of), Chicago, the Iron Range, Minneapolis, Madison, and Indianapolis (kind of).

We drove a lot. I drove a lot. On the days when it wasn’t just me in the car, and I had a back up driver roster one or more family members deep, I spent a lot of time staring at my dad’s big road atlas. I’ve always done this. From the time I was probably seven or eight I spent a lot of time on family trips leaning forward from the cramped back seat of our little minivan and asking for the atlas. It was the way we all avoided “Are we there yet?” Look–here–see for yourself–then you tell me.

For me this habit grew into a love of knowing where I am, of placing myself. I look at the map of where I am, where I’m headed, where I came from, and I trace the blue interstates that connect them like arteries, but once I’ve done that, I still don’t put the atlas down. I’ve learned to go farther afield. And this time around, beginning with British Columbia, of course, I ran my fingers over Canada: the heavy pockets of civilization in the south, thinning out into the stark ranges of the north. (Did you know that not only does Nunavut have no road access in from other provinces, but there is no reliable system of roads between its towns and settlements? Most of it is above the timber line, and you have no choice but to fly in.)

Looking at Canada for very long scared me, though. In a month and a half I am moving to the other side of a notably large continent. The bed I will be sleeping in is just under three thousand miles from the one I’m sleeping in now. I checked. And all that space scares me.

But of course the land that lies between is not just some unknowable, disembodied thing. I can know it–I do know it.

Last Thursday I left friends in Madison to head towards more friends (and my sister) just north of Indianapolis. I spent the first hour or so winding around on back roads in southern Wisconsin, and then glanced down at my phone and realized I had it set on “avoid tolls.” (Despite all my talk about the atlas, Google Maps is just easier when I’m alone.) But I didn’t mind. I accepted my fate even though it would take more gas and more time and once or twice included a gravel road. It was a hot day and the sky was very blue and the cornfields were very green.  For that first stretch, I rarely saw another car and drove on highways with letters for names. The houses and shining metal outbuildings I passed seemed settled in the soil, basking in the sun.

A few times recently I’ve found myself fancifully telling some patient listener that the British countryside (particularly what we walked through in Wales last summer) is the landscape of my soul. But as I drove those summer midwest roads I kept thinking of the commercials I used to see when my Missouri grandma would turn on the news as she cooked dinner, commercials for regional chains like Menards, boomingly announcing their home as America’s Heartland, and I know this seems silly, but for me it is. The midwest is the land of my heart. (I don’t know what this makes North Carolina–the land of my skin, the largest organ, the place I surround myself with? But I digress…)

Of course, the vast majority of my time in the midwest was spent in north central Missouri when my grandparents were still alive, and at no point on this trip did I set foot on its poor-cousin-of-Iowa soil. Instead I wandered through states which I mostly don’t know very well for themselves. But it all felt familiar.

Outside of Dayton my mom and Mary and I took a walk near our hotel and when everything dissolved to rain, we cut back through the parking lot single file, along one curb after another like children, our umbrellas held out for balance under the wide grey sky.

In Chicago we walked around U of C, trying to find the room where my parents first met. We never did find it, which perhaps made poetic sense, because it was called the Nonesuch Room.

The highways we drove were sporadically flanked with those monstrous, calm white windmills, and chains like Culver’s and A&W’s where my grandpa liked to stop to have a chocolate malted for dinner. I had never been down these particular roads before, but they tasted like home and my heart beat to the rhythm of tires on asphalt.

Of course I don’t mean to idealize the Midwest too much. After all, it was at a rest stop in Kansas when I was ten or eleven that I saw a Wanted poster for a sex offender who had escaped from state prison in the area, and then barely slept for the next few nights because I was fearfully processing the existence of human evil, perhaps for the first time. I could still give you a description of the tattoo on his chest. But the presence of wickedness does not negate the perseverance of good, and the heart beats on, yearning–sometimes self-consciously–for redemption.

After I walked out of my classroom for the last time in early June, I went downstairs with my last boxful of papers and books and told my friend that I felt a bit naked. I was leaving behind the teacher, the Miss Hodgkins, in the corner on the floor, and was stepping back out as only Alice. That’s how I left for the Midwest, stripped and small. The original point of the trip was my cousin’s wedding up way north of Duluth and the first night we got there, Mary and I went to the last evening campfire program of teen camp. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, and we stayed for the whole thing as dusk slowly set in. Along with lots of laborious prize-giving for verses memorized and games won, we sang worship songs, and one in particular, which is notably not a favorite, stuck to my ribs. Every chorus ended with the line “Look to the sky!” And when I looked to the sky my uncomfortable nakedness and exposure, my unsteady weakness made sense. I fit, a small child in an immense and well-worn palm. I was at peace. The next night, I danced barefoot in the grass alongside my siblings and cousins because Joe and Becky were married and the sky was great above us.

I am still anxious when I think of August when I will get on a plane alone and spend a day suspended in the air between two places, but if I look down at those first flyover states I will see a place that has the power to make me calm. A place of ice cream and gravel, of dry bones and rich soil, of green-brown openness fading grey in the twilight, where they look their dead hard in the face before they bury them. It’s a place I know as well as my own breathing, that’s as close to me as the thumping chambers of my own heart.

Die before you die. There is no chance after.

Have Hope

This week I told my students news I’ve been sitting on for a little while: next year, I’m not returning to teach because I’m going to graduate school in Vancouver, a city in some other country facing out over some other ocean. Some of them were calm when I told them, and some were less-so. Two fell out of their chairs. A few announced they could no longer do the assigned work for the day because of their great grief. I laughed. But my hands shook through the first two classes I had to tell. I am sad. I’m as sure that this is the right decision as I’m sure of my own right hand, but nothing can quite assuage the child-like sorrow I feel over leaving people and places I love.

However, my moving to another place and another life is the least of these things.

My sister told me this afternoon that everything feels heavy right now. This season has been one in which I’ve learned the weight of the world, and this week that weight has been not only burdensome but loud. All the pain in my peripheral vision, the groanings of the created beings around me, are making themselves known in cacophony.

I have been thinking of the Yeats poem I love which says: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned.” I grieve for the things I see that are lost, many beyond repair. He’s right: the things on which we rely will be shattered, and we can’t buy back past innocence for ourselves or for those we love.

I love that poem because it is completely true, but I also love it because it is completely short-sighted. I’m not disputing the obvious brilliance of W.B. Yeats, but human bitterness often assures that our long-distance vision is effectively nil. Things lost may be beyond repair, but they are not beyond redemption and rebirth. The things we rely on will eventually crumble beneath us, so that we may land at last on the Rock, the only one who can, in fact, buy back not only our innocence, but ourselves entire, and bring us into eternity. Yeats tells the truth, but only the first page of it.

One of my fellow teachers, a kind, kind man who was my English teacher himself back in the day, told me yesterday that I needed to write a book, because I had something to say. I hesitantly agreed, and perhaps what I have to say begins with this: I am hopeful.

Once I would have told you that I am hopeful because my students are sweet and bright and growing up into good people. I would have told you that I am hopeful because my family and my friends, they love me and make me happy. I would have told you that I am hopeful because God had given me far more comforts and blessings than I deserve. I would have told you that I am hopeful because spring comes every year.

But now, though my fears are bigger, because my fears are bigger, so are my hopes. They are stronger than they once were. Now I am hopeful because no matter where my students end up, they have a God who loves them each like the hundredth sheep. Now I am hopeful because that same faithful God loves me and has given me others to pass that love on to, in sinful fits and starts. Now I am hopeful because that love is so real that God saw fit to manifest it in his own bleeding, gasping Son on a cross. Now I am hopeful because I serve a God who dreamed up spring, who has pronounced that life can spring forth from the deadest death, that Yeats’ “blood-dimmed tide” will be followed by the clearest dawn.

Christmas (Promised)

I’ve always been one of those purists who doesn’t want to see any Christmas decorations or hear any Christmas songs or eat anything that tastes like peppermint or cinnamon until after Thanksgiving, because there’s a schoolmarm living on my shoulder who says that we must keep the season unto itself so that it will remain precious and unspoilt.

But this year I’m throwing that out the window. Maybe it’s because my mom has been texting me potential dates for the Christmas party they’re throwing this year, or maybe it’s because the books sitting next to me on the couch right now are Thomas Cahill’s The Gift of the Jews, Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk, and Malcolm Guite’s Waiting on the Word, all of which sound like promises. But more likely the reason that my roommate and I took a detour the other night in Harris Teeter to prowl around for chocolate advent calendars is that in the last few months, and even especially in the last few weeks, I have been learning how little control I have over my own life and any goodness that comes from it, and how every neat little security structure I have set up will eventually fail me, sometimes in a spectacular fashion. But when I think of Christmas coming in forty-three days, I feel peaceful in a way that cannot possibly make sense to the outside world.

The advent of Christmas means the advent of a Savior, a Savior who will fulfill everything the prophecies foretold and see this thing through to the bitter, wine-on-a-pike end, all the way through to the blinding new life on the other side. So I’ve had a change of heart, like Scrooge, because it is more and more wonderfully apparently that Jesus is not only a rock, but the only solid one, and I want to try to “keep Christmas all the year” to remind myself.

Something else I’m doing this fall, besides learning hard lessons that I thought I already knew, is interviewing women about their faith. The first question I have been asking right off the bat is “Tell me your favorite Bible story.” So that’s how I’m going to keep Christmas today. I’m going to tell you the story.

It begins with a scared girl who is trusting, trusting and a good man with her who is trusting, trusting. The two of them are headed on a trip away from home to obey the law of the land, and then in a strange barn on the old hay with the smell of manure there is pain and terror and blood and then a crying baby, alongside the sleepy animals.

And an angel comes, but not to Joseph and Mary, to some tired shepherds on a nearby hillside. The angel announces joy to the shepherds, that the newborn in the feeding trough has come to save them, that this is God’s plan and they are the first the hear news of this One who bears peace and goodwill into the world. The angel brings a whole singing host with him. So the shepherds hurry to worship, and then they hurry to tell the story as far and wide as they can.

And there is a star too, a big, bright one, but not for Joseph and Mary. Instead the star is for men in the East who follow it to travel far and risk their lives to give the tiny King the worship that they somehow know they owe him.

And the scared girl who trusted gathers and treasures all these things in her heart. And so do we, because this is the promise of things to come.

Oh, joyful and triumphant, come let us adore him, Christ the Lord!

Beauty Past Change

On Sunday, I got back from an overseas trip that was the product of many very long-term dreams and plans. I find that I’m grateful for so much.

On a Friday a couple weeks earlier, Karen and I drove up to DC. We listened to old high-school era mix CDs of my sister’s, and got Chik-fil-A. She put her feet up on the dashboard, and then when it got dark and poured lashing rain for the last couple of hours, both of us got worried about my driving. It all felt very 2009, which was fitting, since that was the year we had sat in a booth in a Chik-fil-A back in Greensboro as teenagers and made a list called “Alice and Karen: London Extravaganza 2012!” Five years late is not that late. As we waited at our gate at Dulles the next morning, I thought that a lot of things were being fulfilled.

We stayed the first few days with my sister in Southall, which is in southwest London. They call it Little India. I always think that coming into Southall as a white American is double culture-shock, because you’ve got all the neat, well-worn British infrastructure, but it’s overwhelmingly, full-to-bursting South Asian.

On Monday night, while we watched a wonderfully ridiculous Bollywood movie, and ate wonderful chicken curry and paneer, one of Mary’s roommates covered our arms with henna, and for the rest of the week when we were out around Southall, we got surprised and approving looks from the locals. I bought a really great coat for £5.50 at the charity shop Mary helps run and stared longingly at the beautiful saris that I have no clue how or excuse to wear. And of course the whole family plus Karen ate at Mirch Masala our last night in the city. Mary ordered for the table: lamb on the bone, two kinds of chicken, naan, veg, more paneer, and pitchers of mango lassi. Then we walked back down the sunny crowded streets, full and happy.

Of course, we saw Central London too. The first day, I dragged Karen and George from Kensington Gardens, where we saw the wonderfully ridiculous Italianate memorial a grieving Victoria had built for her Albert, past various important landmarks, all the way down to the Thames, entirely on foot. We ended up at a pretty sliver of park called Victoria Tower Gardens, where we sat on a bench and watched the river go by. That was my favorite part of the day.

I like the quieter corners of cities best: Karen and I walked around Notting Hill another evening,  and when we went to Oxford for the day, best of all was walking through Christ Church Meadow. We sat by the stream there, watched people go leisurely punting past, and took polaroids.

Later in the week, when the whole family had gotten there we went to Hodgkins Certified Favorite London Places: the British Library, Hampstead Heath, and Apulia for an early birthday dinner for Dad. Mom had gotten us all to write poems for him, and after we had read those out and were full of Italian food and wine, we walked around the corner to see an emotional Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Tempest. I had seen The Mousetrap the night before with Karen, but I didn’t compare them. I just enjoyed them both.

 

Then on Saturday Karen left for Brussels and the continent, and my family strapped on our packs and took a train to Birmingham and then another one to Welshpool. Out the window of the train as we were crossing into Wales I saw a field crowded full of solar panels with dozens of sheep wandering between them. I knew that we were getting close.

Back in the eighth century, a Saxon king called Offa decided that he wanted to invade Wales. When this proved more difficult than predicted, he forced his slaves to build a very long earthen wall between his territory and the Welsh, so that they couldn’t invade him back with more success. So now there is a 150 mile walking path named after Offa’s Dyke which winds along the present-day border between England and Wales, back and forth across (and sometimes right on top of) the Dyke itself. Our plan was to do about seventy miles of it, heading south. (Except apparently what the British call walking is what we call hiking, but it’s probably for the best that we didn’t understand that beforehand.)

We got off the train at Welshpool, and it was raining. So we pulled our ponchos over ourselves and our packs and lurched into the town like hunchbacked swamp-beasts to find lunch in a shop. I got a Scotch egg (and others got other things, like sausage rolls,) and we set off down the canal. By the time we reached the actual entrance of the path (marked by the marvelous yellow acorn that we all learned to love so well), the sun was out, and we stripped off our ponchos and marched forth through various wonderfully rolling private pastures, confident in the Right of Way Act for walkers.

Then our precious guidebook announced that there were double arrow climbs ahead of us, and we realized that we had not quite counted on this level of exertion. It was the sort of hill that would almost certainly have had switchbacks in the US, but of course it was just someone’s farmland, and you don’t put switchbacks on that. So we toiled up it for a good hour or two, with a very important reprieve at what was marked as a “special bench.” (All benches henceforth became special.) But after that first painful climb was finally over, there were golden barley fields to cut straight through, which, when you were in the midst of them, went on and on, only stopping at the sky, and then there was a shadowy pine forest that our guidebook called “Grimms’ fairytale,” and a country estate with tall, tall trees, and tame pheasants dawdling past our feet. And then there were hot showers and an enormous dinner at our inn.

The days after the first one blend together more, (or, rather, I’m not going to subject you to a play-by-play,) but I consistently wrote in my journal about the beauty and my tiredness and my contentment. I said that none of these things could be overstated, and I wasn’t being hyperbolic. It was the most beautiful–you did not really have to climb for a view–the view was everywhere. I was the most tired and the most content. We played Spades in pubs at night while waiting for dinner, we picked and ate blackberries as we walked, we had cake at the top of a windy hill and read Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Psalms aloud to the livestock, we took advantage of the free tea and biscuits for walkers in country churches, we squelched in our boots when it rained, we ate bought sandwiches in the ruins of the castle where George Herbert was born, and we saw thousands upon thousands of sheep and marched along daily in their droppings. We even, inevitably, came across a couple of them in various states of decomposition, one with a monarch butterfly fluttering in and out of its ribs. My mom said there was a poem in that, and I agreed with her, but I couldn’t think what it would be.

I realized as we walked up and down and over the hills that I was capable of much more than I had thought, though I resented the fact that while you climbed, the best and farthest views were at your back. (I knew there was a life lesson in that as well, but I decided simply to learn it by osmosis, rather than by dwelling on it.)

We cut our walk short by a day to spend time in Hay-on-Wye, a little Welsh town with more bookstores per capita than anywhere in the world. We split up in the morning and then met back at a bench near the town square with our individually accumulated book piles, and in the afternoon took a cab to Llathony, which has a beautiful ruined Priory and only about three other buildings. Our driver gleefully played chicken with the other cars on the narrow Welsh roads, and drove so fast along the side of the mountain and through Gospel Pass, that I said seriously to myself, “Well, if this is the way I go, it’s so beautiful that I don’t think I’ll mind.”

That was a symptom of the way I felt the whole two weeks, though. Once I got past jet lag in London, and adjusted to the fact I was somewhere new, everything in me seemed to simplify and slow and fall into its own groove. The rain which had been terrifying on the initial drive up to DC became friendly as I squinted through wet eyelashes, looking for the next path marker. The sun brightened the things around me: the grass, the roofs, the crowds of sheep, the crowds of people, and I was able to appreciate the shades of difference it made. The practice of gratitude became easy and easier.

Common sense says the feeling will not last, but I’ve been home for a few days now, and it’s still hanging on. On the plane on the way back, I wrote a haiku about the clouds outside the window, unconsciously inspired, I think, by the legions of sheep I’d witnessed staring so stolidly at me earlier that week. So who’s to say that doesn’t mean something?

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

  Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

     With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

                            Praise him.