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.

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.