The Same But Also Different

I’ve been back home for about two months now. They’ve been some of the fastest and fullest months of my life. I was happy to be back and I am happy to be back, but the shine of it all has worn off a bit. I’m no longer turning to people who’ve lived here for decades and saying, “Did you know Greensboro had so many trees? It’s green here!” 

The discomfort of transition is settling in. I can identify the feeling, because I’ve dealt with it before—several times now. It starts in your gut and then if you don’t address it properly it leaks down through all your appendages till at last it comes spewing out of your extremities onto other people in the form of illogical irritability that no one in the room understands, least of all yourself. Best to avoid that.

At the heart of my transition-pains this time is the reality that everything around and within me is both deeply familiar and enormously strange, simultaneously entirely the same and completely different from before. So this is me addressing that. Properly.

Things That Are The Same:

-I’m living in the neighborhood I grew up in, the only neighborhood I’ve ever lived in in Greensboro.

-I’m teaching at Caldwell, the place my entire life in this town has centered around.

-My parents are still here growing their garden and reading their poems and inviting me over but requesting that I call before just dropping by.

-My Aldi is the same. I go on Friday afternoons just like I used to.

-My dear little Kia is still here. The time to replace it is fast approaching, but it’s seen so much of life.

-I’m at the same church I was at the year before I moved away, which is full of many, many familiar faces.

-I hang out with the same women on the weekends. We still plan girls’ night.

-Hanging Rock is still here, as is Cook Out and Krispy Kreme and the Goodwill on Battleground. All pillars of my adolescence. 

-And despite the passage of time, the little idealist who sometimes hopefully tap dances in my chest, who sketches out the biggest of dreams, is still alive and kicking.

Things That are Different, However:

-I’m living in my own place, all myself, and am fiercely interested in how the space is arranged.

-I sometimes worry now that I’ve become a cynic—something I think I’m still too young for.

-I’ve written a whole novel set in the place I’m working and sometimes I get the fictional world confused with the real one. Writing feels weightier.

-I schedule so many more phone dates now. (Because there are so many more far away people I love.)

-The clothes in my closet are 95% different (but, let’s be honest, the number of items is probably roughly the same.)

-My confidence level has risen, but so too has my guardedness.

-There are very few familiar faces from before in my classroom—there arose a generation that knew not Alice.

-Horse Pen Creek Road is four lanes now, which really threw me for a loop at first, but honestly, I’m four lanes now, so I guess I’m okay with it.

Basically, if you’re looking to pick my exact location out in all this messy paradox like I’m Where’s Waldo, you’ll find me balancing between the two extremes, same and different, laughing loudly and crying freely and sometimes just watching the quiet carnival of my life.

Wayfaring in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

I have a lot to say.

I had my last day of work on a Tuesday and by Thursday I was on a plane heading across an ocean for the first time in years. The man in my row didn’t have much English, but smilingly offered me biscuits over and over throughout the flight, and solicitously slipped an extra pillow under my knees when I curled them up onto the empty seat between us. When my client Bonnie had said goodbye, she worried aloud that no one was looking out for me. I thought of this, tucked up in that tight plane seat, and smiled.

My sister picked me up at London Heathrow on Friday morning, and, driving with aggressive delight in her little Honda Jazz, brought me back to her place for a shower. Then, within an hour I was with her and friends in the park in Southall doing book table, and a few hours later at youth club: eating pizza in a church basement, then sitting under a tree by a water cooler dreamily watching teenagers play a frisbee game that was slowly devolving, and thinking that these kids were so nice and funny and going back into teaching sounded not so bad after all. I slept very well that night, suddenly in a different place.

Mary took me out into the countryside the next day, to the Royal Standard, supposedly the oldest pub in Britain. I had pickled kidneys for lunch, and then we went on an idyllic walk over rolling hills while I chattered on to her about my uncertain plans for the future. That evening back in Southall her friend made us biryani. I realized that it had been a long time since I had seen Mary in her place—this bright, noisy, curry-scented corner of England—and it had sunk its roots deep into her. In response, she stepped into every room she entered with loud, dependable confidence.

By Sunday evening, my family had all arrived and we went to my sister’s church, Masih Ghar, and then to the back garden at the local pub to celebrate Father’s Day. It was one of only two dinners the five of us had together over the course of the week. It was good and easy and certain. 

Over the next few days I climbed St. Paul’s with George (where I found out that my brother—who for decades has given the impression that he can leap tall mountains in a single bound—does not much like heights) and went to a traveling circus with my family (where we clapped and laughed and gasped while women hung by their hair, and men hung by their chins, and a human pyramid of acrobats jumped rope together). I found myself at the kids club and the parent-toddler group my sister runs and having huge dosas for lunch, sitting in red booths. I’ve spent the last year or two pulling the shutters of myself closed—metaphorically, physically, even metaphysically—but nothing here would let me do that. Something was always in the way. The latch was broken.

*

By Wednesday afternoon, I was walking along the river in Cambridge with my brother and mom, brightly painted canal boats on our left and a park full of lolling students on our right. I wore a long skirt and sandals, like summer. The conference on George Herbert that my dad had planned began the next morning and I gave my paper very first, on a panel which included one of my professors from undergrad as well as a nice man who remembered me from a conference ten years previous. But the whole weekend was full of odd-but-good connections like that: ties to Vancouver and Pennsylvania and Madison and home. Herbert people, like Herbert himself, are gentle and warm and humble, and I liked talking to them, appreciated that they were always eager to remember my name, though when they realized my family connections, they would say, “So your whole family’s at this conference? I’ve never seen that before…” And I’d laugh and say, “I know. Neither have I. Don’t worry about it.”

Throughout the week, anxiety was sometimes still gnawing at my belly, but slowly, cracks began to form, letting the light in. The first night we sat in Little Saint Mary’s for a poetry reading. I had been, more than I think I understood, wrestling with the place of writing in my life—with what seat to give it at the table, with how to keep it from becoming a bugbear—and my heart slowed its irregularities, felt healthy and hungry again, as I listened to people faithfully present the words they had strung together. One poem was called “Reading the Desert Fathers While Eating a Donut.” The audience knew what she meant.

Then there was the banquet in the great hall at Trinity College—ornate wood paneling reached all around us and hands reached over our shoulders to refill wine glasses again and again, and I think I might have had duck five different ways. Afterwards we sat in Trinity Chapel while a vocal ensemble sang baroque arrangements of Herbert’s poems, harmonies rising over us into high stone space like a woven canopy. They were accompanied by a lute player who just looked like a lute player. I could’ve picked her out if I saw her on the street in Kansas.

And on Sunday, Malcolm Guite led us in a Eucharist service at Clare College Chapel, and the words of the Anglican liturgy tumbled around in my head, where they’ve been nesting for more than a decade now—Ye that intend to lead a new life, they say. There was one more keynote talk that afternoon at a church in the countryside where we were greeted with change-ringing from the bell-tower. As I sat on a centuries-old wooden pew, I watched the leaves behind the leaded glass at the far end of the chancel bobbing their heads in the breeze. Yes, they said, new life, yes, yes.

After that we went to Little Gidding where we were served cake and tea in the garden and one of the poets who is also a latinist read T.S. Eliot’s poem in the place of its birth—because what else could we do? “We shall not cease from exploration,” he read, projecting over the windy blusters which shook the tent and made the tent poles creak. That evening a friend I hadn’t seen since 2020 picked me up in Cambridge and we drove through the night up to Edinburgh. I sometimes slept and sometimes talked and was content without pretense.

*

After a negligible amount of sleep in Edinburgh, Tze and I were on the road again by midday, this time in a 20-year-old Land Rover Defender with another artist in tow. I listened to the tick of the windshield wipers and looked out the window. I realized that over the last couple years as I’ve been busy latching the shutter of myself—I know I have—I may have been missing some things. It was as if there had been a rush of water—a rush of newness—over old glass, and now it was time to look out again and see how the views had shifted. So as we traveled north and north, I paid attention.

There are so many blues and greens and browns and greys and purples in the world—more than I ever knew. Gorse and heather grew up over the country, which was sparsely populated by sturdy buildings with little rows of chimney pots. For the last hour of the drive there were constant vistas to our right hand side: wide, slow hills crested by winding stone walls that did not seem to know they weren’t there to crown a king. Beyond that lay the blanket of the sea, striped with sand, and above that the clouds, a landscape unto themselves. 

We talked most of the time, too. I pulled out my clothing interview questions from my project last spring and we all three went through them as we sped past legions of sheep and cows who were living in glory and didn’t even know it. 

We arrived at Freswick Castle, up north of Wick, in time for dinner, a place where they take in artists and strays and seem determined to leave the latchstring out. So I spent the next few days with warm people, people who tell you encouragingly that you seem so comfortable and confident without realizing this is due to their kindlinesses. Our wine glasses were refilled constantly at dinner. I felt more “looked out for” than Bonnie sitting worrying in her chair back in Madison could have imagined, and was often on the verge of tears. It was a combined sense, I think, of inadequacy and gratefulness. It didn’t get all the way dark there, even at midnight. On clear nights in midsummer, the sky just gets drowsy blue-gold-pink and hangs like that for a few hours before the sun comes up again. Murray, who owns the place, gave us a tour and spoke confidently about where the theater and the film studio and the pool would go. In the midst of all that cloudy diffusion of light, it was hard not to believe him.

In the mornings, I sat in the window in my room and attempted writing exercises and struggled over the skeletons of poems—unsure where to direct all my words and thoughts. And one day, using spotty wifi, I managed to obtain an apartment back in Greensboro (a place all my own) and a job (teaching literature back at Caldwell—And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we first started…) The castle is large, but also small, and everyone there had a front-row seat to the tumult of my transition. My friend was filming a video for Wayfarer Trust, which operates out of the castle, and I shot some moody b-roll and a less moody interview with him and continued to wonder where writing would fit for me now. I watched candles reflected in the mirror each night while we drank whiskey by the fire, noticed how the old hearthstones lay flush with restored floors, and took deep breaths.

I took walks, of course—with others at Duncansby Head, where we saw a puffin, and along the cliffs on my own, clammy with clear sweat. In that part of the world, the wind was such an active participant that it was visible in all things, like the Spirit. The grasses bow to it, the water ruffles under its touch, and the birds—hundreds of them—coast trustingly on its back.

*

I was tired by Friday, when I left Freswick. But it was the tiredness of progress. The pages of my journal were beginning to feel safe again, not like a wilderness. Tze and I dropped off one friend in Inverness and immediately picked up three more and headed west to the Isle of Skye.

While we drove and chatted I watched the highlands outside becoming more and more themselves, and thought of too many ways to describe the hills: the lines of the slopes rise like Icarus climbing into the late-day sun…wrinkled knees under sheets in the lamp light…mountain peaks are arms reaching up side by side like Moses at the battle against the Amalekites. 

We did a far-too-large grocery shop before crossing onto Skye, and then the back of the Defender was so crowded that I spent the last hour with a lap full of raw poultry and a bottle of wine in my skirt. Even so, when we got to the cottage we realized we’d forgotten butter, so half-hysterical, and with varying amounts of encouragement from friends, I beat heavy cream till we had enough for the next morning’s toast.

We spent the next couple days scrambling around the island. I liked seeing friends dotted into the muddy creases of a steep green hillside as we climbed, and I didn’t mind it when I stepped in a bog, went in up to my calf, and almost lost a shoe. The sludge that was left on my leg was green at its top edge, like the earth itself. Hiking there was much more about making your own way than following a path, and as we traced along the side of the mountain at Quiraing I always found my feet drifting up and up, unconsciously choosing the high road. At Fairy Glens there were loud American voices that made me smile. “You’re makin’ me nervous and I don’t even know you!” one woman shouted to a Scot high on the rocks, who immediately shot her a look of disdain. Another repeated over and over and over to Lord-only-knows-who, “Lookit the dog working the sheep across the valley!” 

I carried my journal with me everywhere and squinted as the sun reflected off its pages, managing to scribble anyway about the benches cleft of mud and grass, the plush black moss at the tops of things and the ankle-deep mounds of springy orange growth on the descent. My hair whipped all the time into my peripheral vision, so I could only see what was just below my feet. 

At the Old Man of Storr, it was gusty and threatening and while the rest hiked I stayed tucked in my seat in the back of the car and re-read my journal. I found I’d used the word “visceral,” over and over to describe the trip, as if it were a brand new discovery each time—that goodness could be real, that I could taste it. I heard a passerby say loudly to her boyfriend, “You think she looks sad back there?” But all I was thinking was, What a funny place for flowers to grow—in wind and rain and chill.

The last day we left Skye slowly—on the way I bought a very nice felt hat and a sheepskin hot water bottle cover. We stopped at a distillery where they made storm-matured whiskey, a phrase I loved. We stopped for photos by a bridge and by a castle and by a valley and by a beach, and got caught in the rain again and again. Back on the mainland I made them listen to me read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever aloud, even though it was July. We drove along Loch Lomond, which is very long, and listened to sad Scottish songs, and then eventually to James Taylor as well as Peter, Paul and Mary, because it was, after all, American Independence Day.

*

I slept extra the next morning, back at Tze’s house. Then he showed me bits of Edinburgh—from low tide and from a high hill—and we bought pasties at the train station and he saw me off.

I was sad on the train back to London. So I listened to a Kate Atkinson novel and then saw a pure white horse in the middle of a sheep field, which made me feel hopeful I was T.S. Eliot, on the verge of something great and somber. “Costing not less than everything,” I thought (lines from “Little Gidding” kept coming back to me with dramatic import.)

Then the last day I put on a crop-top, a white linen skirt, and the new hat itself, and went into central London alone. I wandered around the V&A, going up stairs and more stairs till I’d climbed out of the way of most of the other people. I looked at tiles and stained glass and golden miniatures and modern furniture design till I was all full up and warm. I got lunch in Hyde Park, and took the tube to Hampstead Heath where I meandered around for a while, ineffectually but peaceably. Then I came back and had dinner in Southall with Mary and some of the short term teams there for the week, scooping up butter chicken and paneer and dal with pieces of naan till I was satisfied, my fingers oily, but clean.

On my travels home, I made friends—on the plane, in the customs line, on the bus—or rather they made me, drawn by my cool new hat or maybe just their own anxieties. And I thought a lot about the Luci Shaw poem “The chair without distinction,” about just sitting on the edge of things, windows and doors wide open, available to be walked into, to be leaned on for a moment. I had walked into the kind doors of so many other people in the past few weeks, more than I could count.

The point is, this trip gave me much. That’s what I’m trying to say with all these too many words. But the thing it did most is it busted me open, cracked through dry skin, and began what may be a long process of cleaning me out. It told me that I must and can write and that I must and can love. I’m already doing them both anyway and I was made for them. So best not hold them in. Christ walks on the water, the wind, the seemingly impossible, and he’s calling me to meet him there, holding out open hands, always open.

As it says over the door of the Royal Standard when you cross the threshold, “Go gently, pilgrim” (but, by all means, go.)

2021 Retrospective

I skimmed over the entries in my day journal to write this. It was a task I was dreading a bit, to tell the truth. But the more I read my little scribbled phrases, the more I found myself moved by the many small oddly-shaped pieces of the year.

The first thing I did this year, according to my journal, was “woke up sad.” And then that evening I watched Henry V with my family, with that impossibly long shot of Kenneth Branaugh carrying Christian Bale through the ruins of the battle. Within a few days, I was back in Canada, quarantining in an AirBnB, talking to friend after friend on the phone, and falling asleep at night to Derry Girls.

So that was the beginning. What followed those weeks of solitude was a sort of triptych year: five old-feeling months in Vancouver, three unrooted months all over the U.S., and four new-feeling months in Madison.

In Vancouver, I took walks and handed out books at curbside pick-up at the library.  We were still pretty tightly locked down most of those months. I missed in-person chapel desperately. But one night in February, despite it all, three friends and I got dressed to the nines, went to a dinner with wine and lamb shank, and pretended like nothing was wrong. Rach and I even shared lipstick. Also that month I did a project where I interviewed thirty people about clothing. Apparently on February 15, I interviewed three people over the phone, took walks with two friends, and watched a lot of Broadchurch. That’s about how things were. I made paper flowers for Easter with my housemates and I waited. Eventually, after much hand-wringing, I presented my final project and had champagne. Then I graduated, read a poem, and had champagne again. As COVID restrictions began to lift, I left.

I drove down to Lake Tahoe all by my lonesome and once there spent most of the two weeks either walking to the grocery store in sandals or curled up on the corner of the couch with a book or the hard copy of my novel draft. But my Granddad also drove us around the lake and the water was blue, blue, blue. Then George came and we drove Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and then home. We took pictures all along and I wrote too much and with the help of a friend put it all together into a laborious photobook as a souvenir of my summer angst. I helped my Dad make a quiz for a 4th of July party, saw old friends who treated me gently, ran into former students all properly grown up, and listened to so many audiobooks. I drove a lot of toll roads.

Then I came to Madison where I got used to baby spit-up on my clothes, read The Mennyms aloud, immediately joined the local library, watched a whole season of Survivor with Abby and Taylor and then introduced them to my favorite shows, and where, in October, my favorite thing of all was driving out to my clients’ house south of the city, through rolling green-black fields and blue skies. At work I started a project recording life stories, yet again interviewing people. I heard more about football than I ever wanted to, drove up and down the beltline so many times, tried to get used to being the help in other people’s homes, and went apple picking.

I lived in wilderness this year, though often not by choice: squinting over fields at sunsets, doing writing coaching while wandering in the woods, walking to the beach when there were beaches to walk to, hiking in Sierra meadows with my grandfather.

Yet somehow the mechanisms of life kept churning: I ate really good ice cream, read the best bits of Wind in the Willows aloud, had family video calls, left voice messages, made a new friend or several, went to the dentist, had two clothing swaps in two different countries, went on a handful of dates (not particularly successfully), ended up on Medicaid which felt jarring but not bad, and ate cheese souffle on my birthday like I did when I was a little girl. I received so much hospitality from so many people.

I was in Karen’s wedding, which was sweet but inevitably reminded me that I’m not much of a bridesmaid. I got several oil changes, and my check engine light now comes brightly on anytime I drive through mountains. I made a lot of s’mores and cooked a lot of eggs. I stayed with several cousins I hadn’t seen in years. I sat at a backyard table in Pennsylvania shelling limas from my mom’s garden, and ate a sub at a steamy, dusty gas station in Utah amidst shedding cottonwoods. And I read more than I have since childhood, discovering Kazuo Ishiguro and rediscovering Kate Atkinson and Anne herself.

Inevitably I did new things. I watched a friend play harpsichord in a garden, rescued a bird on my old college campus, visited the zoo with a toddler, injured my finger in a vacuum cleaner, gave sponge baths, made my first pecan pie, got my first COVID test, and finally posted on instagram.

And of course, I spent most of the year intermittently laboring over a single novel draft. Writing takes a long old time. I sometimes forget that. And most of my writing this year I did as duty, as task. It often seemed curiously devoid of joy.

Only in constructing this entry have I been able to admit something to myself: this year has been a lot. A lot of good, a lot of strange, a lot of difficult, a lot of a lot. And the last two or three weeks have been especially hard, so I’ve gotten uncharacteristically bad at getting back to people. Sorry about that, friends.

But the other day, I picked up the now-finished draft I hadn’t looked at since Thanksgiving. I skimmed and sometimes properly read it. I’ll tell you a secret: to my surprise, it wasn’t half-bad. All those plodding hours crouched in my chair or curled on my bed, balancing my laptop on my knees, had yielded something that was better than it had been before. So perhaps those who sow with tears will reap with shouts of joy, after all. And perhaps even 2021, in all its grainy, changeable, overwhelming detail, has yielded many things—not all things, but more than we know—that are better than they had been before.

Because today is the day the year starts to get lighter. And even now, in the darkness over Bethlehem, a star is rising.

Scenes from Yesterday

Yesterday morning, my client Bonnie told me a story while she ate cheese and crackers for lunch. I think it was about her children’s babysitter in the sixties, or maybe about her own babysitter back in the forties. I can’t remember. She tells me a lot of stories. When she’d finished she looked over at me and said that it was funny, she’d forgotten all these stories for years and years, and now that she’s old she’s remembering them all the time. 

Then yesterday evening, Abby and Taylor put their kids to bed and went out for a late dinner at a sushi restaurant. I sat upstairs on the living room couch so I could hear if any little ones woke up—the simplest kind of babysitting. About a half hour before they got back, Eliza, who is almost five months, woke up and started fussing. I went in to check on her and found that merely offering her her paci made no difference, so I brought her out into the hallway where she wouldn’t disturb her brother, and rocked her back and forth and back and forth till she dropped off. For so many parents getting the baby back to sleep is a common, often exhausting, rhythm, but for me it was out of the ordinary. So I held her a little longer in the quiet hallway, rocking back and forth and back and forth as her eyes sunk deeper closed and she breathed loudly and evenly into my torso. Finally, I carried her back into the kids’ room. A room where children are asleep is somehow even quieter than if it were empty. Still rocking, I laid Eliza back in her crib, removing my hands from under her one at a time.

And yesterday afternoon, I had a short one hour shift to meet a new-to-me client who I’ll have tomorrow. Her name is Oma and her house smelled like it had been breathing its own stale air in for a while. She had stacks and stacks of newspapers on nearly every surface, I saw a few photo albums I wanted to open, and the caregiver who was there for the evening showed me the pitcher that she likes to fill up with pet food and toss out onto the little back patio for the critters—the birds and the squirrels and the raccoons and all. Then Oma sat on the couch and talked round and round to me for a good forty minutes, all about her first husband and her second husband, the narratives and even the characters bleeding together and swapping places every few minutes.

When I’m old, I suppose I’ll tell lots of stories. I’ll tell about hitting my brother with a car when I was seventeen, and I’ll tell about making friends with the girl in the apartment next door when I was twenty-five because I heard her crying and put a note under her door offering her wine, and I’ll tell about refusing to get out of the car at the Grand Canyon when I was twelve because it was “just a big hole in the ground.” I’ll tell those things. I already do.

But suspect I’ll also tell about yesterday.

Old, New, and Eternal

I have about two weeks before I leave North Carolina and move to the midwest. At first it was very quiet here, and then for the last week-and-change it’s been very busy. I’ve had dinner with friends most nights, read novels which have climbed into me (as all good novels do), marked up chapters of my own draft for revision, and sorted through all my worldly goods and wondered why there are so many of them.

I was nervous to be home. And I have not been very graceful in this in between space, suspended between a life in Vancouver and a life in Wisconsin, bound to the past on one side and the future on the other by thin threads which I mistrust, hanging over what I perceive to be a terrifying abyss. But the stones and earth laid beneath my bare summer feet here have often been steadfast and gentle. I’ve been struck by the patience and the enduring, unearned affection not only of my parents, but of friends who want to see me and listen to me even when I am less than pleasant, who warmly draw up a chair and lay a place for me though I’ve been gone a long old time. One friend told me the other day that if and when I did come back to stay here, I could live with her. She’d clearly been thinking about it for a while. I know that Madison is the next right step at the moment but I’m surprised to realize that I could want to have a life here again, sooner than I think. It’s a reassurance I did not look for, but it’s no less welcome for that.

This strange summer has been spent wrestling with the old and the new and whether either is worth saving. I’ve been dissatisfied and obnoxiously existential. Yet I’ve been looking, I realize now, for what eternal things I can salvage from past or from present or from future, for things I can stand on, rely on. My most deep and definite desire of the last few months, beyond all practical, obvious goods, beyond anything, has been to break into the gospels, right into the middle of Matthew or Mark or Luke, through the spine of the Book, into the crowded street where Jesus is, and to touch the hem of his garment, thin fingertips to dusty, woven fibers. I’m longing for such a flow of resolute holiness as I might receive in that moment, to drown the cacophony of other voices which course through me and exhaust me.

The steady goodnesses from my friends in recent weeks are not the same as jolts of healing, saving power, but they are reflections of it, “good dreams” as Lewis calls them, rearing their heads and yelping awkwardly and sweetly of eternity. They remind me that I do not need to know how everything works for me and for all those around me, past, present, and future, in order to trust in the razor sharpness and utter constancy of the life which Christ both promises and provides. The way ahead, whatever it is, will be hard but also simple. That’s just the way it goes. John Bunyan was onto something when he wrote about the straight and narrow. My existential abyss is more imagined than real. 

My parents are out of town at the moment, so this morning I picked the vegetables in my mom’s garden for her. It’s bigger than it really needs to be for only two people, but she loves growing things and there used to be more of us to feed. That garden has continued to be and continued to be every summer as long as I can remember. So I put on leggings and a hat to protect me from the elements, and listened to an audiobook. It was sticky and sweaty and itchy work: picking the dark purple runner beans from curling vines, my kitchen knife slipping easily through the stalks of okra and yellow squash and the stinging green stems of eggplant, crouching to rustle through the low lima plants, back and forth, over and under, looking for hidden pods, and then the cherry tomatoes falling red off the vine into my palm, dozens and dozens and dozens of them. At the end of an hour, I had a huge bowl wider than my hips which was full to the brim, a small mountain of color dusted with soil.

July Rain Walk

Last week (I think it was last week) it was raining—not drizzle, but big wet smacking drops, off and on in the late afternoon—and I put on my sparkly boots and went for a walk on my own. 

I went a different way than usual. Anyone in my family, if left on autopilot on the sidewalk in front of my childhood home, will walk the mile to the arboretum, near where I used to live. Instead I headed down Scott to the elementary school, cut across the field with its gravel path, and out to the back playground where the concrete basketball court is painted with a colorful map of the U.S., a map which is only very approximately proportionate. I stood above the top left corner where Vancouver would be, and then I walked the route my little brother and I had just finished driving a week before, all the way to North Carolina. I watched my feet closely as I went to make sure they were in the right place. When I arrived, I felt a little dizzy with how fast I made the journey.

Then I walked down the green hill behind the school and to the raised beds, full of poorly tended veggies. I was listening to another one of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne books—a middle one, sentimental and occasionally overwrought, but these qualities too are part of human nature. Past the vegetable gardens there was the grass amphitheater, with the steep bowl-like hill that kids slide down on trays or sleds whenever it snows, and the raised hump of a stage at the bottom.  

I wandered back into the woods and across the creek. The crowd of trees is not huge, really it’s right up against Market Street, but it’s crisscrossed with more little paths than I could count or ever knew were there. As I half-listened to Anne make yet another life-long friend, I imagined all the kids who’d gone to school here exploring these paths and wading in the water of the creek, hiding out, building clubhouses, getting muddy, feeling free and grown in the safe enclosure of the woods at recess. This hadn’t been my school, so it was only an imagining, but just thinking about it made me glad. The trees kept me mostly dry, and I went back home when I got tired of wandering in figure-eights. There was writing to do.

It’s raining again today and my mom is playing piano. In any case, I recommend a walk.

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.