Homemaking

Today, I have been in Vancouver for three months, but it feels like much, much longer. October contained about six months in it. Six good months.

I have been making things: poems, dinner, friends, outfits that might have too much color, Hebrew flashcards, displays of advent readings to go up all around Regent.

I have also been beginning to learn not to make some things: definite plans for next term and the rest of my life, arbitrary childish boundaries set around who I talk to and where I go, excuses.

For various reasons, some of which have to do with the words and images that crowd through my head while I lie trying to sleep and some of which have to do with more official, public spaces like class readings and lectures, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about God’s makerness and my makerness in connection to it. The Lord makes things—he made me—in fact, I think he made me to make things. But it is so very, very easy to take what he has given and usurp it: to dismantle it and set about constructing Babel with great and hurried diligence, when what was called for was an altar.

I am always writing a story that I want to be true. I am forever deciding who I should be and how that should happen: my brain is always ticking full of dialogue that will never be said, I float the people around me into the narrative on carefully articulated sub-plots, and sketch out the peaceful house where I may never live, all with the goal of creating the glowing woman I want to one day wake up as. At best this is dreaming, at worst idolatry.

And I’ve been doing it for a long time, too. In eighth grade I developed an enormous crush on Skandar Keynes, who played Edmund in the Narnia movies, if you’re not familiar. (There’s no reason at all why you should be.) I drew out a careful timeline of our impending relationship, which part of me genuinely believed—I can be a pretty convincing storyteller. It began with his sudden, imminent move from England to North Carolina and culminated in our marriage at the age of seventeen, at which I wore a multi-colored ball gown. So that’s another thing: I’m not patient.

I would like to write the story myself and I would like it to begin tomorrow, on time please. When it doesn’t, I castigate myself. I must have made a misstep, so it’s back to the drawing-board to find the error and rewrite, rewrite, make it perfect. Probably the most terrifying thing about my decision to move to Vancouver was that I was throwing away the entire script. I was leaving everything I thought I’d do, and everyone I’d ever known. A kind of empty dread filled me some days when I thought about going, but I knew I had to be free of the structure of expectations I’d created for myself. I had to burn it, reduce it to ashes, step out through the smoke into the open air.

Now that I am settling here, though, I keep catching myself starting new drafts for this new home, trying to set things in stone very quickly about how this all will be: how long my degree will take, who I will know, how I will live, what songs I will sing, and what words I will write. I think I often associate being able to feel truly at home with how quickly my own scaffolding of control rises into the air around me—so what if it begins to block the sun? It keeps me safe.

I wrote a month or two ago that God brought me here. And he did. But I keep forgetting. I keep forgetting that not only did he make me but he made this home and the people in it. I bear none of the responsibility for the goodness of this place, nor can I claim it.

Reading Week is beginning and yesterday I helped decorate the school for Christmas. To string the lights back and forth across the tall atrium we attempted to use a tall paint roller with an extra handle taped to the bottom, so it would leisurely unspool from one spot to another. It was not leisurely. The roller either would not turn or turned too fast, standing on the upper level I couldn’t hear the directions that they called, and more than once we dropped tangles of lights practically on top of innocent bystanders. I trotted back and forth in the bright sunshine from one side of the mezzanine to the other till I began to sweat. I would not have written that scene with any of those details, but we laughed, and now the lights are glowing.

And last night I ended up sitting on a couch, dripping with sharp, tired tears while three friends sat close and prayed. I would not have written this scene at all. All I did was sit, suddenly surrounded and warm. But they prayed for me like they knew me.

My Lord is so much more gracious than I am.

Friendship and the Weightiness of Laughter

Years ago, when our lives looked very different than they do now, my friend Abby used to call me up and begin the conversation with, “Alice, I’m wretched.” And then we would laugh. She would tell me everything that had gone wrong that day, and I would spend an hour laughing till my face hurt and we both wondered what we had done to deserve this goodness. This remains one of my dearest friendships, and I think that’s a central reason why. We take laughter seriously.

And when my friend Lauren and I were living together and we got stressed out we used to repeat to each other in high-pitched, giggling hysteria, “It’s fine, it’s fine, everything’s fine.” The joke, of course, was that everything wasn’t. But the indelible truth beneath the joke was that it would be fine: All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. We laughed and were comforted.

When I stop and think I realize that nearly every important relationship I have ever had has had laughter seated at it weighty core. To laugh with a friend is to say, thank God you’re here and thank God all this isn’t up to us. Laughter, not derision or mockery or any thing with barbs on it, but the real kind, the gift kind, that some days begins in your eyes and some days begins in your gut, that laughter tells the truth. And the truth is that this business of being human is frankly a bit ridiculous, and we understand very little about how it really works. I mean, we get sleep in our eyes, we have toenails, we sometimes say nicer things about someone behind their back than we ever would to their face, and once I blacked out at a Walmart pharmacy and knocked into a display in full view of a crowd of people because I was too stubborn to stop walking. As I used to say about my students: we’re funny when we mean to be and funny when we don’t.

I’ve found that the people here who it’s already easiest to call my friends are the people who I laugh with, and, more than that, who are willing to laugh at me. So while laughter seems like the shallowest thing and simply the first, easiest way of communicating, used well it’s soul-baring. It can act as an admission of your own fallibility: that you’re a contradictory, limping creature with delusions of grandeur and everyone else in the room is too. So laugh.

Laugh because I wear purple tights and things that sparkle to compensate for my native shyness. (See, it works! It brings joy.)

Laugh because we’re too sleepy for this or laugh because we’re far too awake.

Laugh because we can’t remember or laugh because we can.

Laugh because we’re surprised to have failed or laugh because we’re surprised to have succeeded.

Laugh because we don’t know the words, or laugh because, suddenly, we do.

Laugh at our tears because their significance is not lessened by the reality that they will be dried in the morning.

Laugh without fear of the future.

Time Being New (and Time Being Old)

As of today, I have been in Vancouver for exactly a month, and I continue to gain bruises here and there from falling down things (like the stairs) and walking into things (like the table), which I suppose is proof that I’m not yet quite oriented.

I’m reaching the deeper level of homesickness now where I have a bank account and a bus pass and I’ve been to all my classes at least once, and even submitted a couple assignments, but when I see my former students pop up on social media on their class trip to Italy it feels like a welcome relief. To laugh to myself at their extra-polite smiles as a teacher takes their picture is much easier than reading the dozens of new faces, some with their own glazed expressions of fresh homesickness.

So what I am trying to tell you is that it’s hard to find some neat, coherent topic for a blog entry when everything is new. Everything is new except, of course, for all I bring with me: my loves, my habits, my fears, my socks, my memories, and my sweaters. Those things aren’t new at all. It feels like a Herculean task to marry the past and the future into the now, but in reality, it will happen on its own, so long as I let it. I will wake up one day and be comfortable.

But for now, as Auden says, I have “the Time Being to redeem from insignificance.”

So here are things to hold on to:

-I just did laundry, so I got to sleep between clean sheets last night.

-Everyone here, without exception, has been so kind.

-It is wonderful and a little nerve-racking to be writing for a grade again. It makes me feel like I’m growing.

-A couple days ago, when I ran into another first-year student at Regent, I said, “Oh hello, friend!” without even thinking.

-I have written two poems since I got here: a poem about life back home, and a poem about life here. The one that is currently nudging at the back of my skull is about the people around me now, so that’s a good sign. Onward and upward, through the “Land of Unlikeness”!

Chaff and Wind in the Summer

Last week I took a trip up through Ohio and into Pennsylvania. It was a quiet trip. I drove alone, listening to melancholy audiobooks, and then stayed a few nights each with good friends. The most exciting outings included Hobby Lobby and blueberry picking with a three-year-old. As I told someone just recently, I’m not much of a do-er. I’m a talker and a be-er, for better or for worse. So this was a really lovely trip.

I trod familiar college ground all week long, both literally and figuratively. Every friend I saw was someone who met and became important to me during college. People tend to talk in hackneyed terms about living life in chapters, and it felt appropriate to re-live such a neatly defined previous chapter as I’m about to step out into a brand-new one.

So on Thursday and Friday, I wandered around campus and its environs, stopping to gaze at very particular doors and windows behind which I remembered doing most of my living. I wanted to have some rush of feelings but felt a little disconnected from those four years, though I knew they grew me up. As for the friends I was in the midst of visiting and our long conversations, they were wonderful-wonderful, but those friendships have outgrown college in many ways, which, I told myself, can only be a good thing. I like these new conversations about marriage and motherhood and a home that’s distinctly yours, even if I’m not there yet myself.

But I continued to walk around campus, because I knew I owed it to the place. I took myself into the main classroom building to see if anyone was there, though Grove City doesn’t have summer classes. As I climbed the central staircase, for a brief moment I breathed in some old anxiety hanging in the air, as if I were wearing a backpack again, aware I hadn’t read well enough for the quiz I was about to take, running lists of names and terms in my head, surrounded by a crush of other students moving past me in the ten minutes between morning classes, choruses of wet snow boots squeaking on the slick floors. Funnily, it’s an anxiety I don’t remember feeling, but yet there was its ghost, moving eerily around my midriff, so it must have existed.

The overwhelming majority of things I remember from college are good (thus why I wanted to come back and visit): long meals with friends, sometimes cooked with our own hands, rambling walks down Pinchalong, methodically pacing the stacks whenever I had a paper to write, sitting in the dark nave of the chapel during Thursday night Warriors, teaching myself on icy-cold walks to class to look up even though everyone else looked down. I do remember some hard things: tears, humiliations, hurts that stung. I remember them because I learned from them, though, because they turned out to be important.

But that hazy, anxious feeling I wandered into on the stairs last week was not important, so I walked through it and up out of it onto the second floor toward the English department, where I ran into a favorite professor and we sat down and talked, not about the old days, but about the way things are now.

We cannot carry our whole pasts in our hands, so the wind blows the chaff away, and the memories left to us are manageable. I have been nervous about this move out west because of the looming, but as-yet unseen, challenges and pains I know it will present, but the great North Wind will continue to blow and blow and blow, and I will manage the gifts given to me, one by one by one.

On Eating It All Up

Once a student asked me what my ideal birthday gift would be, and I told him I’d just like to have dinner at a restaurant with really, really good food. I love good food, and I’ve always been an adventurous eater. Anyone who knows me well knows this. Good food is the one thing I have no sales resistance against.

Except. When I get anxious, I physically lose my appetite. When I am in a period of transition, or stress, or just general upset, my desire to eat shrinks and shrinks, and sometimes disappears entirely into a general guilty nausea anytime food is set in front of me. (This is compounded by the fact that I am hyper-conscious of being a thin person who sometimes eats less than she should, but who doesn’t want people to worry about her needlessly. So I fret over other people’s perception of my eating habits. Which makes me more stressed. Which shrinks my appetite even more. It’s all very silly.) So I love food, but when I am discontent, I lose the love I had at first, and the thing which I relished, which was the joyful fulfillment of a need, becomes a chore, a strange, sharp little reminder of my inability to do something so simple as cleaning my plate.

In case you hadn’t caught on, this entry isn’t really about food at all.

It’s about abundance. I think.

I realized about a week ago that my summer is just not going to be very restful in the conventional sense of the word. I packed up my classroom last week, and I’m packing up my apartment this week. A few days after moving back in with my parents, we are heading to Minnesota for a family wedding, and then I will spend a few days with one of my best friends in Minneapolis. I’ll drive home from there, with a quick stop in Indiana, and have a couple weeks to get my affairs in order, before visiting friends in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida in rapid succession. When I get home again, I will have only a week or so before another family wedding, and then I will blink, and it will be August 16th, and I will be sitting alone on a plane, soaring towards a bright, blank new life.

This summer is so full of good things. I won’t have much time to watch Netflix, or even as much as usual to read and write, but instead my effort is going towards spending time with a few of my very favorite people, people who encourage me and calm me and make me feel most whole, some of whom I haven’t seen in years. Seeing them will be like sitting down hungry, after a long, full day, to an enormous meal. It will be like real rest, like letting out a breath I’ve been needlessly holding.

And these people and travels are not the only reminders of the abundance spilling out around me. I am in the midst of packing up my life into boxes and bags. I joked to a few friends that I am perfectly capable of throwing things out–I just have to eulogize them first. In one notable case last week, a eulogy wasn’t enough, and I brought a piece of student work down the hall to a teacher friend, and asked her to discard it for me. I hate to get rid of these shabby treasures, not because they have any value in and of themselves, but because they are tangible reminders of the bounty of the last few years.

When I am anxious and sad, I tend to tie myself up in knots, which puts a kink in the line, stops the good things from coming in. But sorting through these papers and odds and ends (among them medical gauze, water guns, a child’s pioneer bonnet, a blacklight, an incomplete Candyland set, and a topographical map of Knoxville) is reminding me. I am literally, unavoidably counting my blessings. My appetite is coming back in more ways than one. The world is so full of good things–my world is so full of good things–I must have, get, before it cloy.

Last night, when there were several more practical, logical, or even just normal things I could have been doing, I spent a couple hours drawing up a floor plan for a house. It’s not as if I really believe I will ever build a house, least of all one with three stories, a conservatory, and sliding stained-glass windows, but if I am dreaming, then I am hungry, and if I am hungry, I am able to glory in the wonder of food, along with company, and poetry, and every good thing.

If wide-eyed hunger drives me, I can pick myself up and dust myself off, and run with the faith of my seventeen-year-old self towards the divine eucatastrophe, the happy ending. God’s blessings are proclaiming that it is coming, the King is coming. Therefore, let us keep the feast.

May Joys

May is not a month I have ever associated with peace. It is a month of chaos and sugar and absences and red ink up to our eyeballs and holding on for dear life. And this May at school has included some mysterious deathly malady which has occasionally affected not only most of the copiers, but the AC system as well. We’re on our last rope, our last thread.

And yet.

Yesterday I went to Raleigh with some friends. We went to the NC Art Museum and then to dinner at some very cool place called Brewery Bhavana. I knew it was cool because I felt too old and too young for it at the same time, but I still enjoyed myself anyway.

The reason we went to the art museum in the first place was to see a special exhibit called “You Are Here.” The pieces were all supposed to be interactive, and in some way associated with light, color, and sound. (Again–too old and too young at the same time.)

My favorite was a big white room with forty speakers set up in a circle, playing a fifteen minute piece of sacred choral music on loop. And that was it. If you sat on one of the benches in the middle of the room, you could close your eyes and be lifted, as you heard the voices blending and building and melding into one another.

Or you could get up and walk slowly around the room from speaker to speaker, each of which was playing a different individual voice. Once, as I was doing this, the entire piece took a two beat rest, and then the three deep voices which were closest to my head at that moment swung solidly back in. I almost jumped with joy. I felt surrounded, unaccountably loved, known, as if my dear friends were leading the way. My friend Lauren whispered to me, It’s like heaven!

I wish May were that room, that I could walk up to each voice in the peace of a big white space, and listen to its separate resonance and contribution, over and over, that I could take my soft time with each word, each need, each demand for attention. I wish I could parse the million colors and faces swirling in my vision all day long, give each one its due in care, at long last.

But I can’t. I’ll have all the time and more for that in eternity.

But just for now, in these last two weeks as a teacher, I must sit in the middle of it all, close my eyes and be lifted.

Old Loves and Magic

The other night I finished re-reading the fourth Harry Potter book, and I realized my heart was racing. I felt warm and sad.

I’d forgotten how much I love children’s books, which is funny because I have shelves full of them. I read them when I was a kid, and continued to read them unashamedly through middle and high school. They weren’t the only things I read, but clear, sweet stories of adventure meant for audiences with the most wide-open minds were always my first love. I wrote my high school senior thesis on happy endings in children’s lit, and returned to my favorites during summers in college to be reminded and rejoice.

But I don’t read quite as much anymore (though I’m trying to make up the deficit this summer), and when I do I feel duty-bound to plow through grown-up books, to check them off my list, so that I will be improved.

For example, I’m about to force my way through the end of Brothers Karamozov, which was recommended to me over and over with great sincerity and enthusiasm by quite a few people whose opinions I respect. However, the novel has sat next to my bed for a very long time, containing three separate bookmarks which represent more than a year and half of teeth-gritted effort. This is not to say that I think that Dostoyevsky is too smart or difficult for me, or that it is not a wonderful novel, or even that I won’t enjoy it someday. I’m just saying that right about now, I am not loving it as it ought to be loved.

I must face facts I have forgotten: I do sometimes get that lifted, warm-and-sad feeling when I finish a book for adults, but I get it so much more often with kids’ books. When you write for children, there is no need to be obtuse, because children are not shy about the truth. It will not startle them coming round the corner as it does many adults. The best children’s books treat good like good, bad like evil, and mystery as if it is something wonderful to revel in. But I can’t really explain–stories have to be experienced.

Grown-up literary novels are written by people who expect, for better or for worse, to have what they have written discussed and pondered and considered, and perhaps, on a sunny day, enjoyed. But a good children’s novel is meant to be fallen into, to be put on like a garment,  because that’s what kids do with the things they love.

On my fridge is a little slip of paper in my fourth grade handwriting. It looks like this:

Council of Galadriel

A written explanation of the inner workings of this girl-power-on-the-grammar-school-playground circa 2001 version of Tolkien’s masterpieces would not be worth the space it would take up on the page. But suffice to say, when I look at this little list now, more than fifteen years later, I have two reactions, both of which make me smile.

First: Only one of the girls listed had even a small working knowledge of what the novels actually contained or who any of these characters really were (and she was not me), but we understood magic, that these names with all their solemn vowels could be portals to some greater world, and we wanted in to that place.

And second: That magic naturally fit and even characterized a childhood friendship which would become the foundation of something which has so far proved to be enduring. Of the three other girls on the list one just moved out of my apartment, one just moved in, and the third is moving back to Greensboro with her husband at long last later this month. And if you mention a good story to any of us grown women, we will glow. We loved magic then, and in a different, deeper ways, through years of practice, we love it now.

So shame on me for neglecting the stories which first taught me so much. Maybe next time someone acts surprised that I’ve never read whatever adult classic changed their life, I will write down the title, but then, if I am feeling brave, I will recommend right back at them one of the books which changed mine.

Maybe, in good time, I will become my grandma as I remember her, repeatedly confessing with only a very little bit of regret that as she got older she would merely re-read the her same favorite books over and over, because “they were just so good!” It is well for each of us to find stories in our own heart’s language.

Note: This entry from 2012 contains recommendations of some long-held children’s favorites, all of which I still stand by wholeheartedly, if you’re willing to stomach my sometimes stilted and flowery descriptions.

A Brief Note of Appreciation

I’m writing this because my mom suggested it a while back, but also because I mean it. (I always mean it.)

Week before last, over Thanksgiving break, I got together with a bunch of high school classmates. Since I work at my alma mater a friend wanted to reminisce about our teachers, and he began enthusiastically with “Of course, Mrs. Liebmann was always a champion.”

I’ve been processing this. I think of her now as a friend, and don’t always take the time to remember her as a teacher. Freshman year we spent long hours over creative art projects and she read to us, not just picture books like I do now at storytime, but whole chapter books, stories of people lost and found. I was in her small group and she prayed and prayed and prayed over us. She taught us all through our tenth grade year about the age of exploration and the promise of the new world  while her hair fell out from chemo. (She announced that it was Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, but that it was “not Alice’s fault.”) And senior year she listened patiently in Apologetics as we haltingly expressed our fears and hopes about the strange caverns in our souls. We talked one day about the things we were absolutely sure of. She said that the one thing she knew beyond any doubt, even at her most lost, was that God is. God is and He is and He is. So that was, for me, a place to begin.

Yes, she was a champion. I look back now with a much fuller picture, but I see that even then she was always fighting for something. Fighting for justice, fighting for our innocence, fighting for our hope, fighting to lead us to understanding, fighting for us to comprehend beauty and joy. Most of all though, I think she fought for wisdom. Ours, but also her own. She was constantly searching to know what was good and true, because what was good and true was all that was worth living for. Proverbs 4:7: “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.” She fought to know and serve her God better, and we watched with ringside seats.

So I am writing this because I know I do not say thank you enough and I think people get tired and they forget. They forget that God uses their obedience to him in ways both large and small.

So know this, Leslie: I owe more than I can express to your steadfast teaching, and as the layers of my old stubbornness wear away I have only learned more. But the web spreads much wider than that. For years you’ve championed Wisdom daily at the front of your classroom, for hundreds of kids, and because of you she has made triumphant inroads into those hundreds of hearts. You’ve left tracks, friend. I see them.

Without a Place

Last month, I read an essay by a woman named Jennifer Trafton, and in it she described “the feeling of being the Picassoesque face in every crowd…You would like me, surely, if only my left ear were not hanging crookedly off the end of my tongue.” The essay made me cry.

I was raised by parents who were academics and who were Christians. They had PhDs from the University of Chicago and now taught British literature at a state university, and every Sunday morning we brought along hymnals and sang “Fairest Lord Jesus” and “Holy, Holy, Holy” on the way to church in the minivan. In a world where the evangelical mind was a scandal, and universities were ever busier building ivory towers of Babel, they, and therefore we, were impossibilities. Yet there we sat after dinner each night, reading aloud everything from Corrie Ten Boom to Thackeray to Yeats to the Psalms.

And so I was always acutely aware I was like no one around me. From the time I was about six I understood that I was my own little untethered island, floating through the strange seas of the wide world. My friends listened to Adventures in Odyssey and went to the beach every summer and spring and watched the Disney Channel and had things like Gushers and individually packaged Pringles in their snacks. I read multiple books a day and swung on a swing my dad had made and took long walks when my mom kicked me out of the house for reading too much and ate home-grown dried tomatoes off the racks of my mother’s dehydrator. Through sticky North Carolina summers, we went without air conditioning and lived with windows open to the breeze, and in winter we heated our house with a wood stove. Once, while standing in my kitchen, a friend who had been to my house dozens of times told me that it seemed strange that my family owned something so modern and practical as a microwave.

I felt displaced. I was made of some other metal than all those around me, softer, with an odd sheen, and I knew the differences went far beyond my family. I remember as a child spending afternoons wandering round and round my backyard looking for a place that could be only mine, that felt just right. I climbed trees and I crawled under bushes and no place fit. I was the wrong shape for all of them. Later when I first began to write stories in earnest, I always stuck consciously to fairy tales. I felt so unsure of and baffled by the world around me, that I didn’t think I could muster it onto the page. I did not belong to it, and it did not belong to me.

I don’t think a day has gone by when I have not felt too small or too large, too old or too young, too much or too little. I was loved and am loved, and I have never once doubted that, but in every group, I feel like the token, though I’m never sure what I’m meant to be a token of–the one who reads and dreams and cries and digs her heels in? The one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other girl?

When I was young I resisted my differences: I wished my parents had named me Sarah, like everybody else, and when the other fifth grade girls chatted about their manicures and asked me if I was going to get one too, I said ‘maybe,’ knowing as I said it that it was a lie. But by the time I hit middle school, I had decided to make peace with my awkwardly glinting differences, to learn to love them. I began to cling to them, in fact, sometimes at the cost of relationships with other people. I was shy and stubborn and defensive. (I am still shy and stubborn and defensive, but sometimes I am a little better at hiding it.) I cowered beneath the banner of myself. In fact, there were seasons and places in my life when, for my own comfort, I consistently translated “I am different than you” into “I am better than you.” I thought that superiority would ward off loneliness and fear. (It didn’t. It just made me bitter.)

Around the time I was seventeen or eighteen, though, I gradually began to get a little better at friendship. I started to actually listen, and wait, and wade slowly through the waters of the people around me. And I found, over the course of months and years, that many people who to me had seemed as if they fit so well, were actually covering their own strangely shaped hearts with their hands, and covertly glancing at the world around them with incredulity. I began to carry a quietly blossoming sense of awe as I encountered others. I wasn’t the oddity. We all were.

I know now that the misfit feeling comes from different sources and is more tangible for some than others. For some it’s characterized by real, crushing sorrow or sin which has marked them like Cain, for others by differences in race or culture or ability or interest or by unhappy and broken families and relationships. For many of us though, it’s just a vague feeling that one is some complex and malfunctioning prototype abandoned in a warehouse full of unlike objects.

None of this seems joyful or purposeful and yet I remain awed. I’m not certain why. Perhaps it is because I know our loneliness has the potential to teach us compassion and kindness. Perhaps it is because I know we were not abandoned in the warehouse after all, and that God has a plan for all us billions of impossibilities. Or perhaps it is because I know that God came to seek and save the lost and call little Zacchaeus out of the tree where he clung. I am overwhelmed by the largeness and the strangeness of such original Love.

seated-woman-in-garden

The Fixed Land Receding

Writing is getting harder than ever. I hate that.

I can find the time, and sometimes I can even find the ideas, but there’s a paralysis that creeps up my arms and into my throat when I try to paste words together into thoughts, and it’s getting more and more difficult to fight through it. Like I said, I hate that.

Lately I have been praying that foolish, wonderful prayer for God to teach me fear and trembling. I remember in the prayer room at Grove City, both in the communal journal and on the butcher paper on the walls, our precious overabundance of English majors used to write out John Donne’s sonnet in earnest to their Lord: “Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you as yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend…” Sometimes I smile and shiver when I think of all the ways He must be answering those prayers. Then I think of my own prayers and immediately want to pull my knees tight to my chest. Fear and trembling…

Of course, my life is pretty stable, I am returning for a second year of teaching at Caldwell, with almost exactly the same load I had last year, and I am living with my best friend of 14 years in an apartment less than a mile from the house where I grew up. I have never been an adventurer.

And along with getting ready for school, I’ve been watching a lot of Friends. It’s been fun. I’ve been thinking, though. It’s a show that’s supposed to be this iconic look at what it’s like to be in your twenties, how you need something to center yourself on, how you need (wait for it) your friends. Because it’s at this point in our lives that many of us realize that we are finally out there, in the big old world that’s been so criticized and lionized to us. And what and how are we going to do from here?

Perhaps the first thing everyone my age has noticed is that friendships are harder now. I have many friends but I have to work and work to love them and to hear them. I have to set up phone dates and answer texts. Even for the friends here in town, we have to constantly invite one another into our lives, add seeing one another to our to-do list, make the time even when we don’t have it.

When we do get together, we catch up. And I will tell you a dreadful secret: I am sick of catching up. I love these people, and I want very much to know how they’re doing, but at some point I’d like the conversation to progress into something more. (I first realized we were really and truly grown-ups when people my own age started politely asking how my family was.) I’d like to actually participate in living with one another, instead of just getting the recap highlights reel.

We talk about our jobs, our attempts to find them, and our attempts to find the work of our own hands in them. I will say, it’s been a peculiar joy to me to see so many friends light up: This is it! This is hard and this is good. Or even, This job is not what I meant at all, at all. But now I think I know where I’m headed, and once I get out of here, I think I even know how to get there.

I often walk away from these conversations thinking about teaching and high school. When I first got up in front of a class last fall, I was startled at how familiar these kids seemed to me. Their laughter and their shrugs, their bitterness and innocence showed me myself at sixteen and myself at twenty-two. But I was somehow simultaneously shocked to find that there was also a great chasm between us. I am stunned by the minute and large ways you change and grow as you enter the long corridors of your twenties. This is the age when the sounds in your head at last quiet down, when, for better or for worse, you can finally hear yourself think.

And so here each of us twenty-somethings sits… Lonely is not the right word, although it’s a very real possibility for many of us. Solitary is better. Alone with our souls and the Lover of our souls. Other people still matter, oh how they matter, but they don’t have the power over us that they used to. We are discovering that we “hang always upon the cross of ourselves.” “The mind has cliffs of fall,” and we have begun to peer down over them to learn the depths and the heights. There are tall, bright waves crashing at the bottom.

In Perelandra, C.S. Lewis’s science fiction retelling of the Fall, the one command the green lady must obey is to never spend the night on the “fixed land.” When she goes to sleep she must lie down on one of the floating islands in the seas of her world, and trust God that she will wake up in a place where he still cares for her, even if it’s quite different than any place she imagined or knows.

I am twenty-three, I have clambered onto a floating island, and the fixed land is receding in the distance. I am calling out for it as I watch it go. I am afraid. I know: this is not safe, but it is good.