Fear and Gardens in Pandemic-Time

It has been raining here all week, in the way that Vancouver does—gradually, quietly, uncertainly—but the other day my housemate began to resuscitate the front garden. She cleared out pine needles and tied the ivy back from rows of big blue planter pots. The puppy assisted vigilantly, mostly by getting muddy. Everyone was glad. There are plans, I think, for much more of the same.

And yet we are still tired here, still anxious, sometimes still downright sad and afraid. The days are full of these ups and downs. Vacillating wildly between worried paralysis and easy distractions from it seems to be the new mode of existence for so many of us, but it can’t possibly be what we’re called to. I think perhaps our central question comes down to this: How do we manage in these conditions? What does it mean to live abundantly when fear has come to dwell so obviously among us?

A coherent answer to that question seems almost impossible to me, and perhaps to you. But while watching Christina beam over her work in the garden, I remembered something I wrote a few years ago, and I’ve decided it’s time I preach to myself. It’s an entry called “Permission to Fear,” and I wrote it during my first year of teaching, many lifetimes ago. 

So on the advice of my 22-year-old self I’m going to have a talk with my fear, with our fear. Fine, I know you’re here for a while, I will say. Here’s a chair. Have a seat somewhere out of the way. If you have something to say, I suppose you may say it, but don’t be surprised if I say something right back. And even then, don’t get too comfortable. You’re not here to stay forever. Then, with this strange new house-guest in my heart, I will wash my hands and I will do the next thing.

I idly asked for watercolors the other day and an hour or two ago, Christina unearthed an old art set in her closet and presented it triumphantly at my bedroom door. So there is a next thing. Wherever we find gardens now, we will tend them: the bread that needs baking, the herbs that need growing, the Zoom meetings that need having, the toilets that need cleaning, the children that need bathing, the piano that needs playing, the friends that need calling, the poem that needs writing, the prayers that need praying.

So tend to these things—gradually, quietly, uncertainly. Sow these seeds, and sow them while weeping if need be. That is scriptural. The psalmist says those who sow with tears will reap with joy, so perhaps there is even particular holiness and blessing to living on this razor’s edge to which God has led us. Tears, after all, will water the earth.

Yesterday a work crew was out in our little neighborhood, trimming the plum trees. When I came downstairs I found that Melanie had gone after and collected the cut branches that they would have mulched—armfuls and armfuls of them it seemed like—and was arranging them in every vase she could find. The little blue kitchen was full of pink blossoms every way I looked.

An Anniversary of Evil and Hope

I’m teaching freshman writing this semester. I have kids who are a full decade younger than I am.

For the end of the week, I pulled out an editorial about 9-11 that I knew Sonya had loved to teach, then found a couple more good ones and printed them all off. I mentioned to my mom that I was going to do something about the attacks, and she said I should show them some of the news footage.

So I went home that night and found a video on youtube that was about ten minutes long, which showed the main events of the morning from the vantage point of all the major news outlets. I listened to the confusion and fear of the broadcasters and realized that I had never actually seen the live footage before. On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in my fourth grade classroom. When I went home that afternoon, my parents hadn’t exactly turned on the tv and suggested I watch.

The next day my first period came in, full of life and sort of antsy. I told them they were going to write about 9-11, and took a poll. Most of them weren’t even alive. The ones who were were only a few months old. A couple boys told me proudly that they were born just days after the attacks.

And then I started the video. We watched Flight 175 crash into the second tower again and again, exploding into that black and orange cloud of fire that, to most of our soft minds, looks like CGI. After a few minutes, I glanced out at my students, who were leaning forward against their desks. Their faces were still and white and they looked as if they had swallowed poison. My own stomach suddenly hurt. They’re fourteen. I thought. They’re children. What am I doing? I shouldn’t have. No. I turned back to the footage as one of the reporters was saying, “And now the south tower is…it’s falling apart. There’s no other way to describe it.” Where it had stood, there was a thick, awful column of smoke, as tall as the tower itself had been, but containing nothing living.

When the video finished, the room was very quiet. I told them to read the three editorials (which you can find here, here, and here) and I put an assignment up on the screen for them to write an editorial of their own.

For the rest of the period (and the two periods after that), I sat at my desk and read my students’ journal entries about last night’s volleyball game, and how high school has a lot more homework than they expected. And they sat at their desks and read and wrote about fear and pain. I looked up at them a few times. Christ Jesus makes all things new, and sometimes I think our grief over wicked things must be made new too. I watched it made new in their faces.

The assignment isn’t due until Monday, but some of them turned them into me already and I read them this weekend. Most of them were angry, the boys especially. They talked a lot about cowardice. They used words like slime and sick and evil and monsters. They said that watching the footage made them tear up or gave them goosebumps. They said they didn’t understand and they wanted revenge.

But that’s not all they said. They talked about bravery and they talked about sacrifice. They had quite a lot to say about justice. Several of them talked about healing. They said that pain was pain, but in that moment, for a while at least, it brought us together on our knees. America woke up and remembered itself. One very-nearly quoted Maya Angelou: “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” My students, who remember none of this, saw death and wrote about hope.

I am thankful.


This school-year began hard. At the end of the first day of school, I walked down the hall to a co-worker’s classroom and sat on a desk and cried. I told her that it wasn’t my students (and it wasn’t), but it was me. I wasn’t sure I was made to do this. I didn’t have enough ability or energy, or perhaps most of all, enough love. I looked at my students and I looked at the teachers around me and I thought that maybe inside of my ribcage, instead of a muscular heart, pumping and giving, that maybe I only had sand. I did not seem to be enough.

And then my grandma died and my sister moved to London within days of one another, and things got oh-so-busy. So busy that I have not written here for over a month, even though I’ve wanted to. By way of an update: I have cried a little, been angry a few times, and laughed more than maybe I should. I have learned what it is to be unexpectedly encouraged through supportive parents and writing poems and silly games at the end of class and getting to act in a play again.

I’m reading through The Jesus Storybook Bible with a couple students, (which is a different story for a different day,) and a few weeks ago while reading about the battle of Jericho, I came across a line that stopped me and held me still: “So it was that God’s people entered their new home. And they didn’t have to fight to get in — they only had to walk.” So maybe my heart need not be a muscular hero, because there already is One. Maybe I am not always called to be a soldier “on the front lines of humanity,” but just a child who walks faithfully after my God. Of course I am not enough. I was never intended to be.

And I don’t know if God meant me for teaching, but right now, he certainly means teaching for me. High-schoolers can be uniquely bitter and uniquely joyful, often within the same hour. Last weekend I went to a regional one-act competition with Caldwell’s drama department. It’s funny to see what happens when you put about three hundred theatre kids in an auditorium for hours on end. They eat it up, they find friends, they get loud, they glow. More than once, in the forty-minute breaks between shows, sixty or seventy of them would congregate down front to play a game called Pony-something-or-other (or maybe it was Something-something-Pony?) They stood in a huge circle and clapped and chanted and danced with each other. They turned exuberant and pink and out-of-breath. I sat curled in my hard seat and watched and laughed and said “absolutely not” over and over whenever our kids bothered me to join them. To watch them dance is to be warm and to be still and to know.

Permission to Fear

I am home for a snow day today and absurdly grateful for it.

I have been thinking quite a lot about fear lately, and but I am having a very difficult time marshaling my thoughts. I don’t know why fear is so hard to talk about, because everybody is afraid. Fear is probably the most universal emotion–even those who’ve hardened themselves to love and to hate still know fear. Almost every bad and sinful choice any of us ever make is a result of letting fear rule us.

Maybe the reason I don’t like to talk about fear is that I know that I shouldn’t live in it, and I am ashamed that I do. I am ashamed that I am frightened to say certain things or to talk to certain people. I am ashamed that I let others’ opinions matter so much, even when I know they are wrong. I am ashamed that sometimes today and its small, assorted burdens terrify me like nothing else. “You are too intelligent and privileged to be afraid.” I tell myself. “If TSwift and Florence can shake it off, then so can you.”

But sometimes I can’t. More often than not it seems the walls of my heart are eggshell thin and the weighty little fears of the day crush in through them and paralyze and panic me. And then there I am, along with Paul, not doing what I will to do, but instead doing what I hate.

So I’ve decided that I’m just going to be scared. I’m giving myself permission to be afraid, for my face to blanch and my mouth to get dry. When fear shows up I will not try to push him out. Instead, I will send him to sit in the back corner, and speak to him often. I’ll say to him, “I will let you stay, but you must know that while you have the power to make my knees shake and my voice stutter, you have no power over my will. Do your worst. Smash my heart all the way down into my stomach. Force me to taste my own bitterness all night long. You are mortal and weak. And when I hold you up to the light of the Gospel I can see right through you.”

And then, with fear sitting on a straight-backed chair in the corner of my chest, I will go on doing. To be frightened is to have the opportunity to be exhilaratingly brave, so with a fist-sized lump in my throat I will go on speaking. When I become too scared, I will laugh. We are told that perfect love casts out fear, so while I wait for perfect Love to do just that, I will serve Him who gives me “that grace to begin.”

Things I’ve Learned in College

Do not listen to anybody who tries to tell you which are the best years of your life. Just go ahead and live.

People have layers. And they’re really funny and often wonderful. Be patient and you’ll see.

Take people up on their hospitality.

Sometimes there are good reasons to change your mind about other people and about yourself. This phenomena is more commonly known as admitting you were wrong.

Eat chocolate with your Earl Grey.

Spend a long time over meals, especially with friends.

Do not automatically believe what people say about you just because they know you well, or even because they love you well. Listen to them, but remember that they might be wrong. The only ultimate authority for your identity is Christ.

Smile at people on the sidewalk.

You are not owed forgiveness. It is a gift.

Tell good stories.

Don’t overcook your broccoli.

Make friends in class.

Listen with your mouth shut.

Do not compare or quantify pain. That’s the coward’s way. Find a hand to hold, look it in the eye, and walk through it. It may be long, but keep going.

Don’t be afraid to go ahead and grow up. Grown-ups can be happy too.

Try not to ask for extensions on papers.

Say hard things in person, but speak slowly when you do.

Sometimes everything will feel distant and unreal. Do not live by that feeling, but instead remember that home is not here and that there are other pilgrims alongside you on the way.

Write thank you notes.

When somebody wants to be your friend, take them up on it.

Make soup. You can freeze it forever.

When a friend confides in you, treasure that, especially when it is something hard.

Sometimes you will still be shy. And, so long as you are not rude, that’s just fine.

You will fail. You will not be the person you know you ought to be. And that’s okay, not because everybody fails, but because there is One who didn’t.


And most importantly, perhaps, the things I’ve been taught by others:

“Do the next thing.”

“Say what you mean.”

“Determine to love people.”

“Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”

“Grace is sufficient even though we huff and puff with all our might to try to find something or someone it cannot cover. Grace is enough. He is enough. Jesus is enough.”


I am home for a whole week of break. Yesterday afternoon I took a walk with my dad and it was sunny and balmy. This afternoon I took a walk with my mom and it was bitter and rainy. (No reflection on respective parents, I’m sure.) My plans for this week include seeing people I love, doing a very small amount of homework, applying for a couple more jobs, writing things which are not my novel, and reading about Christianity and fiction. Also a lot of sleep.

This is a funny place to be, in my last semester. I feel like I’m teetering on the edge of the world, and that in May I’ll fall into it head-long for the first time, but of course that is silly. I’ve been in the world all along. I was born into it.

I am frightened about next year’s changes, though. I am not worried about a job or a home or a car (though I’m sure I ought to be sometimes.) Instead, I am rather predictably worried about being lonely. I am terrified to step out of the tight knit little college atmosphere, well-insulated with people who love me deep and well, into a looser sort of place where, though I will have support, there will not always be a hand to hold within arm’s length, or a smiling face directly when I look over my shoulder.

In college, I have gratefully stumbled into friendships with interesting, valuable, layered people. I’ve become an aficionado of the one-on-one friendship, of the tea date, of laughter and the well-placed, comfortable bit of sass. I have collected friends who don’t mind my camping out on their couches when they’re not home, who remember my aunts and cousins though they’ve never met them, who dutifully read this little blog.

I love these people dearly and I intend to absolutely hold onto them for quite a long time, but I am realizing more and more that what I will need when I graduate (and what I have perhaps missed, sometimes rather keenly, throughout college) is community. A common group with common loves.

Dr. Messer asked me the other day if I had any friends or peers who were as invested in writing as I was—people I could really get into it with. I don’t and I never really have. It is also true that, though it takes more courage than I would like to admit to say so, I still find it much easier to write about my God than to talk about Him with friends. It is not that they don’t love Him too, but that we’ve been shy to build our friendships on Him, shy to say His name.

I am indeed shy to write this because I am not ready to step away from the people I consider to be my best friends. I do not intend to ever be ready. I will always love them as I do now, except someday hopefully a little better. I am, however, longing for this community of which I still maintain only the vaguest idea.

I sent out the second draft of my novel to quite a few people last week, and that has, unexpectedly, (though why I wouldn’t expect it, I have no idea) been quite a start. For the first time all these people have the opportunity to read the pages onto which I’ve strained my pale little soul for the last two semesters. It makes me wonder how it would be to sit down and wholesale read the draft of someone else’s novel, someone else’s carefully strung words. How it would be to sit down and say, what do you think a Christian novel might be in the twenty-first century? Do you think it can exist? Do you think you or I might write one? Perhaps we ought to pray and then begin.

Going Back Home

On Wednesday, my dear old freshman hall had a progressive Thanksgiving dinner in the apartments. I have loved these, my girls, since way back, even before this entry more than three years ago.

Here is how we were Christmas of freshman year:


And here is how we are Thanksgiving of senior year:


Just look at how cute we were then and how grown we are now.

Sometimes when we sit around we like to talk about the old days on the Fam Pan: the days of parties in the bathroom and poop posters and yelling down the hall for noms and Storytime and leftover ice cream eaten in the hall-butt and doors that stayed open all the time. We like to remember and say, Man, I wish we all saw each other more. I wish we could do that again.

But the future is already coming fast towards us in a big frightening wave of built-up expectations and unpaid bills. We sometimes feel that we’re in danger of being washed out and away to sea. We want to go back. Take us back.

Nostalgia itself is comforting. We are pleased that we can remember, that we’re wise enough to look back and know that the good times were good. (Real perceptive. Well done us.) But, of course, what we really want is not to go back to the past, but for our pasts, or at least our favorite parts of them, to become our futures. We want the safe yesterdays which we loved to be transplanted to our tomorrows to do over and over again. (As if the future wasn’t its own self, as if God didn’t have plans for it too.)

It’s funny because we’ve got nostalgia all wrong. The divine point of the longing we feel is not to fill it, but to know it, to understand what it is we long for.

There is a painful gaping hole in each one of our chests and sometimes we can feel the wind whistling through it. The hole will not be filled by wading into our pasts, or even our futures, and picking through for the best bits: the late nights up with dear friends, the long exhilarating road trips, even the dripping popsicles and small sticky faces in the summertime. We can stuff all the dreams in the world into that misshapen hollow to try to fill it and yet we’d still be able to look down and see right through ourselves to the other side. Really, as far as the eye can see, the hole is not going to be filled at all. Its edges will continue to ache.

But then again, the eye can’t see very far. It is shortsighted and weak, and would be blinded by the wonder of Him for whom the heart truly longs.

Someday, we’ll go back home again, really home, to the God for whom we were made, and our shoulders and eyes will strengthen so that we’ll be able to bear the weight and the sight of the Glory that will fulfill our feeble longings.

So for now, when we remember, we must remember that.


I don’t usually write these things late, but I haven’t been able to sleep much lately, so here I am. Hello. I haven’t had much of an appetite either. My gut has been full of pointless nervous energy and I feel like I’m in pieces. I do not feel whole.

Today I got up and boiled some chicken for later, and put on a favorite dress from freshman year, and went to chapel, and came back to finish studying for my Civ Arts test and wander around my little apartment in concentric circles. Finally I headed up to campus, and took the exam, and went to an English-major-tea, and came back to cook dinner for some friends. (Well, really, they did a lot of the cooking. And all of the cleaning up.) They made me play my cello and I like them anyway. Afterwards one of my dearest friends came over and told me something very hard and I sat and listened and hurt for her. Then I read a chapter of Elizabeth Enright aloud and hugged her.

Those were the pieces of my day and I cannot put them together as I would like, or at least, not yet. So I’ll just tell you what else I’ve been thinking about.

We’ve been studying Da Vinci’s Last Supper in Civ Arts, and Dr. Munson says that Philip is his favorite. Jesus has announced that one of his disciples will betray him and Philip has risen from his seat and pointed to himself. He has seen the blackness of his own heart, and he knows the traitor must be he.

I have a very clear memory of one day in fifth grade walking back from PE class. After we filed past Mrs. Hedgecock’s room, she emerged, irate. She claimed that one of us had pounded on the door as we passed and disrupted her lesson and she was determined to find out whom. Nobody fessed up. I cannot remember why it was so important, but Mrs. Hedgecock, Mrs. Thomas, and Coach sat us all down very seriously and told us to put our heads down. They told us to raise our hand if we were guilty. Even if, perhaps, they said, we thought we could have done it on accident and had a slight lapse of memory. If there was the smallest chance it was us, we were to raise our hand. Well, I reasoned, I didn’t remember what I had been up to when we’d been walking that part of the hall. I was sure my mind had been wandering, though, so I put my hand in the air. When we put our heads up, all three teachers were hiding smiles. We immediately asked who it was. (So much for anonymity…) Ah, well, they said, only one person had raised their hand, and they were quite sure this person wasn’t the culprit, so best just to move on… The issue was dropped, and I sat quiet and red-faced in the corner.

I haven’t learned my lesson, though. I am still strangely eager to take blame. And I don’t want to let go of it, either. I cannot speak for Philip, but I still snap my eyes shut tight, and thrust my hand in the air. It is easier to take the guilt than to learn love, to learn mercy, to give, to take, to crack open my chest to the elements.

And here, at the solution, is where I am stuck, and the cursor just blinks at me. I will hazard a guess into the white space, though. I need to stop raising my hand in response to a call for confession, and instead start bodily throwing myself at the feet of the Great Blame-taker. I need to stop saying morosely, “I did that. I did that thing.” and start crying, “YOU TAKE IT. I CANNOT! I CANNOT!” Then He, in His goodness, will take not only my guilt, but me. And He will make me…whole. I cannot conceive of it right now, but He will mend pieces of which I can make no sense.

 I am so weary.

The Next Thing

You guys, blog entries don’t always solve my problems like they should. That’s why I write them, you know: I get upset and thinking about something and I start composing like mad in my head, then within a day or two I get it all out on the page in a big hunk of cathartic vomit, then everyone tells me how nice it is and I pat myself on the back and feel much better and go on my merry way. Unfortunately, a few weeks later I realize I’m still pretty screwy in the same old ways, and I already wrote about it, so there’s nothing else to do now. Drat.

One particular entry has continued to sit in my gut, though I wrote it months ago. It is the one about living up to my own expectations, making a dreadful little god of the woman I think I ought to be.

This tendency has all been especially apparent lately with my attempts to write fourteen novel pages every two weeks for my independent study. Somewhere along the line I’ve convinced myself that not only must everything I write turn out brilliantly, but it must be wonderful from the first draft, that the plot of an entire book must knit itself together seamlessly in the first attempt. So, with that in mind, I sit down to write every day and vacillate routinely between terror and despair.  I mean, if I can’t do a simple novel right on the first try, what am I worth?

I’ve been stumbling along anyway, sending weak kicks in the direction of the imaginary-Alice-who-can-do-all-things, and gratefully soaking up encouragement from Dr. Potter, and the book I’m reading on fiction writing, and the friends who say I’m over-thinking it.

And yesterday my mom sent me an essay in the mail called “The Judgment of Memory,” by a man named Joseph Bottum, who was, at the time, editor of First Things. It was mainly about memoir writing, about our tendency to write about our parents and childhoods (my parents are brave to encourage this habit of mine), about the way in which we dilute our own memories, about the way in which modern writers shy away from story and myth and substance, and instead give marvelous little detailed descriptions of things between which they are ultimately unable to draw a connection.

This conflict between focusing on details or plot is not just present in writing, in the way I squeeze words onto a page, but in my own life, in the way I spend my time, in the way I occupy my mind, in the way I rest. It is comfortable to look at small things like myself and my words and my to-do post it note for the week. It is uncomfortable to try to fit grand archetypes and ideals into my compact, inelastic life.

Details come easier because they can be added unto the all-powerful vision of ideal-Alice. The story comes hard because it is His. She does not exist in His story: there’s only Him and me. In fact it’s mostly Him. He was in all these places first. He “father’d-forth” all I see and all I know. Joseph Bottum writes that “In the end, every sentence with the word I in it is a lie: self-justifying, self-righteous, self-conscious, self-sick.”

So, what to do? How to follow along as He tells the story?

Way back freshman year, I wrote a frustrated little entry called “Weather and The Woman Question“ and Mrs. Liebmann commented and told me not to worry, just to “Do the next thing.” (That advice immediately skyrocketed right up there with “Don’t take yourself too seriously,” and “Say what you mean.”) It is not really as hard as I like to pretend to figure out the next thing. The next thing after this is to practice my cello, to write a page, to finish my laundry. I know how stories go. I’ve got lots of examples of lives well-lived.

For Christ, the next thing was usually something like eating dinner or going to bed or praying or talking to his mom or making a table. Sometimes, though, the next thing was healing a lame man, or casting out a whole horde of demons, or overturning a bunch of tables. One day the next thing was to be forsaken and to die. On Sunday, the next thing was to get up and walk out of a tomb.

Which means that the next thing for you and for me is really, simply this, from Luke 8: “Return to your own house, and tell what great things God has done for you.”

Lord Bless Saturday

I have had a lot of thoughts in my head this week. My little mind has been overwhelmed with details and ideas and nineteen credits and conflicting plans. Last night I got the chance to talk to several dear friends from home. I told one of them that even though the weekend was here, I couldn’t seem to figure out how to rest: whether to be with people to escape from my own harried thoughts or to sit by myself and wait out the storm in my head.

I’m still not sure. Right now I’m emotionally undone: there are too many people and things to care about. I so much want to love it all well, and I feel like I’m doing only a passable job. But lists are easy and soothing, and so, in inexact order, here is my advice for myself this weekend:

1. No Quad business until Tuesday night when it’s time for coding. None.

2. Do not offer to cook for anyone until Thursday at the earliest. You already have too many leftovers.

3. Ask for help when you need it.

4. Fold your laundry.

5. Remember that you are incapable of irrevocably screwing up your life with one decision about classes.

6. Don’t go anywhere besides church on Sunday.

7. Make it a priority to read well rather than finishing everything.

8. Wear t-shirts that you like.

9. Lock yourself away somewhere with your novel pages. Try to write words that make sentences and when you are too frightened to go on, pray to the One who “shall enlarge your heart.”

10. You are small. Just because everyone else seems to be able to handle it perfectly, doesn’t mean you must. The only thing you must do is ask loud and clear, as John Donne does, for “that grace to begin.” That’s all that’s required. Christ has done the rest.