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.

Good Yeast of Spirit

I’m finishing up a week at a writers’ retreat in a little town in Kentucky. There’s been a lot of bourbon and wine and a lot of lean-in-on-the-arm-of-your-chair-laughing conversations, a lot of tears and a lot of blue sky.

Yesterday we toured a distillery and one of the first places they took us was a room lined with vats each as big as my kitchen, all full of caramelly brown yeast eating away at the sugars in corn—bubbling, swirling froth. The tour guide invited us to reach down into one of them. The air above was warm with steam, but the liquid I brought to my mouth on my finger was cool and soft and sweet.  Some exchange of life was happening between the air and the liquor and I couldn’t understand it.

This evening I fly back to Greensboro and then on Wednesday I’ll be teaching again for the first time in four years. In four days there’ll be kids in my classroom and I’ll be back up front doing that writing-in-real-time thing of communicating to a live, volatile audience. It seems surreal.

Then I’ll come home at the end of each day to my new place that’s all my own, my place that has a sunny upstairs second bedroom. Soon I’ll get a bed for it and then I’ll be holding a place for others, a place with a chair and bed and two windows and boxes of books that have yet to be unpacked. All on a quiet street under the trees.

And a couple evenings a week when I come home—I’m saying this now so that somebody hears me—I will write, curled up in an alcove with a window. I may come back to more revisions on this novel, I may write some poetry, and I may take a stab at long-form creative non-fiction. In fact, I may try them all at once, switching from one to the next to the next because variety is good for the soul. It wakes you up.

The point is this. I’ve felt just about every way I possibly can about my writing in the past week, but the ultimate truth that has sifted down into my gut through all my tumult is that I must keep at it, even if I’m “planting the crop I will not live to harvest,” a crop stored in barrels for years to come. So I’ll gladly pay teaching the mental, emotional tax it demands, but I’ll also guard that home writing alcove ferociously. I’ll continue to sit down with a blank page and reach out a hand through the mist of words to the meaning. I won’t understand it, but some exchange of life will be happening.

Homing

My dad writes poems for birthdays, so I have a box full of cards with lines of rhythmic verse in his ballpoint pen. And I’m not sure if he knows this, because he doesn’t save copies for himself, but more than one of them from the last few years is called “Homing.” Apparently, for him, coming back home, finding my way from a distance, is one of the repeated themes of my life. 

He’s not wrong. As of yesterday, I’m back in Greensboro for good and all (at least as far as I know.) I’ll be teaching in a classroom down the hall from my old one and living in a place down the street from my parents. I know that many blessings have fallen into my lap, but despite my usual grandiose tendencies for meditating on place and space during a transition, that hasn’t seemed like the important thing. What’s seemed like the important thing, what I’ve been thinking about more than ever as I’ve moved, is just human relationship. 

Three times in the last couple months I’ve cried when saying goodbye. I never used to do this. I used to do my stoic midwestern roots proud and wave people off cheerfully and go on with my day. No longer. I’ve grown sentimental and gooey in my old age—tearing up and hugging extra tight, trying in vain to stuff down the unseemly rip of grief in my chest.

That’s one explanation at least, but as plausible as it is, I rather suspect the larger thing that’s happening is that I’m coming to understand what we all are to each other. I’m coming to understand that when you know someone for a long time or a short time or any time at all, the friction of the contact, of the bumping up against one another’s shell, wears away at the hard edges. And more quickly than we know, we carve out space in each other—I in you and you in me. We do this over and over, at every turn of our lives. 

Sometimes the process can be painful and sharp, but eventually—in the best relationships—these carved-out spaces become soft, welcoming, just the right shape. Eventually, each person you’ve been close to carries always with them a brief home for you to come to. Because even though they can be hard to access at times, these holes we wear into each other never really go away. And so the more people we meet, the more we love and are loved, the more we’re likely to end up walking around like Swiss cheese people, full of holes just the right shape for people out there who in turn bear the shape of home for us.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been mourning in those leavings, I think. I’ve been mourning those homes cleft in friends that they carry away with them as we part–the comfort and the goodness. But I don’t “grieve without hope.” I’m well-practiced at homing. I always find my way back.

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.)

Sacred Work

A dear friend is back home in Switzerland at the moment, spending time with her uncle as he’s dying. She visits him in his nursing home and they go for drives and have long conversations about where they’ll go for lunch and then she comes back to the family farmhouse and sits on the front steps and sometimes leaves me a voice message. 

And a few weeks ago, a client of mine died, just hours after I finished a shift with her. So I left Regula a message, because I figured that at the moment she’d understand even more than most people—maybe even more than I did. I told her how Phyllis had been scared because her breathing was getting worse and how I’d called the hospice nurse and how I’d sat with her and eventually held her hand even though she usually liked to be left alone and how when I got the call that night that she’d passed, I was a little shocked, even though I’d been dourly predicting it to my housemates for weeks. I think I also told her that at the beginning of the afternoon, as Phyllis’s son was valiantly urging her to eat a little more, she’d rolled her eyes over to me and pleaded dramatically, “A-lice…” and I’d burst out laughing. Even then, she was thoroughly her stubborn self, and it warmed me.

When Regula replied to me she said—more than once—that it seemed that the work that each of us was getting to do was sacred. And I’ve been thinking about that off and on ever since.

I’ve had thoughts whirling around about the sacred-secular divide and about Dorothy Sayers’ writings on work and other things of that sort, but the main thing I keep thinking is that the work that is the most sacred has a sort of unexpected constancy. It carries on unavoidably into itself from one generation to the next. It’s common grace—you get up, you get dressed, you drive to work, you clock in because you need the paycheck, and then heaven breaks through. 

Just today, I gave my client Bonnie a final copy of her life story that I wrote up, based on interviews I recorded with her a few months ago. She was a labor and delivery nurse here in Madison for forty years. As I edited it together, the bit that gave me a little catch in my throat every time I reached it was when she talked about delivering a premie the doctor thought would be stillborn. She caught him in her hands, “and then I felt it move!” So she rushed him to the nursery, and when she came back to the mother—who was very ill herself and in kidney failure—the woman said, shaking her head, “Too bad it’s dead. Oh, too bad it’s dead…” And Bonnie said to her, “It’s not dead! It’s not dead!”

After fifty years, Bonnie has still not gotten over that story and the happy, healthy little boy that baby grew up into, and I think that’s reasonable. She sits in her chair in the living room, reading the newspaper in the morning, and much of the news is bad. But most of the nice news, she cuts out with a pair of scissors she keeps in her drawer. There is a pile she saves for one of her sons, and often a couple piles for her grandchildren. And then there are all the pieces she sets aside for me. Newspaper clippings are Bonnie’s love language, so now they litter my car and mark many of my books—concerts I never go to and information about Vancouver I already know and releases of books I’ll likely never read. But I have them, just in case, padding all the cracks of my life.

All good work, paid or unpaid, which is done well (or even just done halfway) carries about it at least a whiff of the holy. Abby told me the other day about a woman she knows who says to herself whenever she sweeps the floor, “Take that, Satan!” There is goodness in showing up, opening the curtains, scooping the cats’ litter, washing my hands, wiping the pudding drool, listening, laughing, and folding the underwear, because it’s in the midst of these ordered intimacies that life and death make their grand appearances into our unsuspecting hands. I’m moving on to other places and rhythms quite soon, but I suspect that—wherever I go—I’ll never do work more sacred than this.

Vancouver This May

A week and a half ago I flew back to Vancouver for the first time since I left last June. I was there for four full days and I spent just about every second of them feeling warm and wide-eyed. I forgot words a lot and at one point sat in the atrium at Regent next to a friend, looking up at the blue sky through the skylights and crying while she ate her lunch from JamJar.

Insomuch as I had coherent thoughts beyond “Oh, I’m so happy to be here,” and “Vancouver is green, green, green,” and “Will this person mind if I hug them for the seventh time in as many minutes?” I thought a lot about place and I thought a lot about presence. The importance of the two were all tangled up in my mind, and even now I can’t quite separate them, but perhaps that’s because they’re sprung from the same root.

I knew I wouldn’t be there long enough to get individual time with most people or to visit every place, so I focused on just being

I went from gathering to gathering to gathering in my rain boots that I didn’t need because of the sunshine. I posed for so many pictures with my arms around people, though I didn’t take a single one myself. I bussed home alone on the 25 one afternoon. At Melanie’s on Sunday evening, I unloaded the dishwasher and we all forgot for a moment that I didn’t live there anymore. And on Monday after convocation Jolene booked an Evo to drive me home and we both remembered that our friendship had really properly begun in a car-share three years before.

I saw so many people I was surprised to feel deeply connected to. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. I learn more and more as I get older that you never quite unconnect from anyone, ever, for better or for worse. Dynamics may change significantly, but the ties still bind. You feel them tugging, even when you’re not sure what part of you they’re attached to.

I’m always desperate for perspective of both the literal and metaphorical varieties, for an understanding of how things all fit together at the end of it all, and at one point during the happy, crowded grad tea at Regent, Heather and I went up to the upper level of the atrium and looked down on all the dear heads and motioning hands as people talked. I took a deep breath.

It was more important than I realized it was going to be to walk my two feet over all the ground I used to cover. I took a couple walks with my parents—one around my old neighborhood and one around Stanley Park—and both times I was met with a rush of something that was more like a scent than an actual memory of all my many walks and the long, rainy conversations that had passed over that concrete.

And all the long weekend there was a little note of delight humming continually in me because even when I was inside, there was always abundance out the window—I’d forgotten about that mountain-sea-skyline view that rushes into your lungs like fresh air whenever you look north. It makes me feel like a child.

I flew home on Wednesday, saw two little brown birds contentedly hopping around in the big terminal at the Denver airport, just being, and then landed that evening in a Madison that was enveloped in a hot, humid, other-worldly mist.

The trip, which was really just there and back again, shocked me with the purity of its joy. A year ago, I struggled to leave Vancouver gracefully, to not completely let the tide of my own resentment over what Covid had taken pull me under, but, in a gush of undignified sentimentality, this visit restored things in me which I didn’t know could be restored. “I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten…” Even when I forget to believe the promises, they still turn out to be true. I just show up, hold out my hands in a posture of receiving, and God sends my roots rain.

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.

Thanksgiving Coming

I’m sitting in my bed (my favorite place for writing, no matter how I try to create another one) looking out the two large panes of my window, through which I can see bare trees and blue sky and the neighbor’s roof bathed in late afternoon sun.

Writing has been a struggle recently. The blog has not come easy because, though many things in my life have seemed good, not many things have seemed urgent, as if I must run and tell them right away. And as for the novel draft, in its final chapters it has become a millstone around my neck. I mean, that’s a dramatic metaphor, sure, but please believe me when I say that it’s been FAR too long since it’s had anyone else’s eyes on it. After this week, though, the draft will be finished and I will take seventeen big breaths in a row and start writing my pitch letter for agents. 

But the real drama of my life recently has been car trouble. My little silver Kia had already been in and out of the shop a couple weeks ago for an engine issue, and then the battery started dying on me. The second time it happened was this past Tuesday as I was leaving my client’s house in the evening after making her dinner. When the car wouldn’t start, I went back inside to ask her if she thought any of her neighbors could give me a jump.

After she had made about four phone calls (one of which was to her son, who lives twenty minutes away), and had also offered to let me just take her car (I told her “No, Bonnie”), and three different people had asked if I had AAA, and various neighbors, roused from their evenings, had run across the street to knock on more doors, I ended up with the help of two women: Paula, who’s a divorce lawyer, and Marilyn, whose husband Allen drives trucks for a living.

We huddled in the driveway under the floodlights and Marilyn gave Paula and me a thorough tutorial in how to jump a car. The Kia started and then immediately died again. So Marilyn gave me a ride all the way home to Fitchburg, and spent the drive telling me about her stroke a few years ago and about the paper route she used to do with her son and also giving me her husband’s number because he would be home on Saturday and could help. My car stayed in Bonnie’s driveway.

The next day I was off work. I called the shop about getting the car towed. And then, since Abby had a Bible study she wanted to go to, and Taylor was working, I watched Calvin. Our neighbor texted asking if we wanted a walk, so we set off towards the marsh with her and her baby, a folding stroller in tow, in case Cal’s little legs got tired. They did eventually. We went a ways. As I pushed him on the long path around the lake, he stared up at the tallest trees and commented occasionally on “the forest” while Sally and I chatted about moving to a place and how long you decide to stay there.

On Thursday I had a morning shift at Bonnie’s again, and I borrowed my housemates’ car. I took Bonnie to run some errands and when we arrived back at the house, I was helping her out of the car before pulling it into the garage, and Paula from next door (remember, the lawyer?) ran up and not so much requested as demanded that she be allowed to gift me a AAA membership. I said, yes, sure, of course, that was very kind of her.

The problem with my car turned out to just be a dead battery, not the alternator, thank God. It’s back with me now, safe, sound, and covered by AAA.

Some of this was stressful, sure, particularly the cost of repairs, but Abby and I were talking about it a little later, and I said, “You know, I chose this.” I meant that I could have made much different plans for this year. I could have gone back into teaching or some other job with a salary, I could be working from home doing freelance writing so that I’m not so dependent on a car, I could’ve even stayed in Vancouver where a car is hardly necessary. I had the luxury of choice, and I chose this.

I chose this, but I did not really understand the good I was choosing. I did not really understand the way I was laying myself bare to the generosity of the people around me: my friends and my boss and my mechanic and my neighbors and my clients and their neighbors. I did not really understand that in deciding to move to a new city in the wintry midwest and work twenty hours a week so I could write, I was choosing to accept the expansiveness of divine generosity. I was choosing the bright tightrope of God’s provision.

The Encouragement of Memory

Since the beginning of June, all through hot, heavy summer and into this warm, welcome fall, I’ve been trying to do two things. I’ve been trying not to think about my life in Vancouver too much, and I’ve been trying to understand where I am now.

I’ve found myself in so many different places recently and with so many different people and doing so many different things. What I’ve written on here has been scattered and confused and so have I. I’m constantly thinking of all the moments and movements I could write about, but there are so very, very many of them, and I need to be able to explain them to myself before explaining them to any reader. 

Yet I cannot seem to find the narrative thread: it’s all fragments. There’s the pink sunset I can see from the back window of my client Bonnie’s house as her oxygen machine puffs rhythmically beside me in the yellow-linoleum kitchen. There’s the little church I’ve been visiting where everyone has been so very, very welcoming but I still feel more shy than is sensible. There’s the room I’ve settled into with all my things and books arranged just so for the first time since I can remember. There’s my housemates’ baby crying in the back bedroom so sturdily that we can hear both her actual voice and the sound of it coming through the monitor, her own wailing echo. There’s the tattered band-aid I regularly change out on my finger from a thrilling “workplace injury” I got a week and half ago and my impatience for it to heal. There’s prayer in the round at two different small groups I’ve visited. There’s the dip and roll of Wisconsin farmland as I drive to a client’s, the green and gold of the ripening soybeans. There is the great white wall of books and TV in the living room upstairs and the floor in front of it, usually covered in toddler and baby and toys. There’s me wading ever so slowly forward on my novel and there’s my quest to find places to wear my cute dresses (or any clothes other than my cobalt blue work polo). And here and there, there is a tree turning orange at its tip in full confidence that the chill of season’s change will indeed come even if, at the moment, it hasn’t.

So here I am in the stolid Midwest, hopelessly trying to decipher it all, and then a couple days ago I was flipping through my day journal and I was reminded of something. I was reminded of sitting on the beach at Spanish Banks two nights before I left Vancouver. A few weeks before someone had given my friend Regula and I a couple of small bottles of real champagne as graduation gifts. We still had one left that we’d been forgetting and forgetting to drink. That night a group of folks were gathering, and since it was our last chance Regula brought the bottle. As the sun settled in to set to the far west of the mountains, the two of us passed it back and forth, swigging it lukewarm straight from the bottle, trying not to let our friend Aubrey see how improperly we were consuming her generosity. We giggled a lot and were very happy and free on bare sand. It was a celebration. I think I’d also brought a slice of chocolate cheesecake for my dinner which I didn’t share with anyone.  

What I felt as I remembered was not a pang of missing my life there like you might think, but more a pang of relief and understanding. The memory had become well-ordered in my mind now, not fragmentary, its rough edges rubbed away and its significance clear. This is what happens to things in the past. We forget just enough of them that what’s left is manageable, comprehensible. For instance, enough months had passed that I’d forgotten that though there was a large group at the beach that evening, I talked to no one but close friends and felt ashamed of my introversion. No, now the memory is nothing but joy—joy I can hold in my hand and sip.

It’s God’s faithfulness that this is so. That things (most things) eventually make sense, recede into their own well-ordered, jewel-like narrative, given time and space and remembering. If that day or week or season eventually came up clean in the wash, we can say to ourselves, then probably this one will too. After all, he’s still the same God he was back then. 

So maybe I’ll stop treating my present moment, my present life (which, incidentally is quite a good one) as if it’s some cipher I must labor over and bash my head against. Instead I’ll encourage myself to let the present be. I’ll keep collecting it as I always have, of course. I’ll fill jars and jars full of observations and moments and colors and thoughts, but then I’ll leave them be on a shelf and walk away. I’ll let time distill them till they make sense to me. And in the meantime, I’ll return to the memories that have aged and wisened, that have things to tell me. I will remember and taste and wonder over their many good gifts.

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.