Obvious Things

I’ve been in Madison for going-on-two months and I have yet to go downtown or eat at any restaurant beside Culver’s or explore anywhere at all really and I am so content.

I work three days a week, going to people’s homes and making their meals and sweeping their kitchen floors and sitting on their couches to chat and sometimes bringing them their medication. When I leave I always tell them the next time I’ll see them. On the days I don’t work, I write some, I look out the window, and in the evenings I watch TV and put my clothes on their hangers.

Since I’ve gotten here, I’ve been stepping softly and steadily. I’ve gained weight. Not much, but still—I’m embarrassingly delighted by it. My brown leather pencil skirt fits properly for the first time in years, though I don’t really have anywhere to wear it. And I’ve been reading, reading the books I’ve been dragging round for years without ever touching, reading for the joy of it.

I’ve found that here—and by here I am not sure if I mean this place or this season of life (perhaps both)—here I can accept my own slowness. I can move along at a plodding, dreamlike pace, contentment rising up in me like a tide, paying attention to obvious things, letting life be self-evident.    

And then sometimes when I am driving from one client’s home to another in the middle of the day, I find that I am crying. I have to retrace the path of my thoughts to pinpoint what it is I was thinking about that brought on the tears. It’s usually some hurt or fear from way deep down, sometimes from decades ago, that has decided that waters were safe and still enough to rise to the surface. That’s how it goes, I suppose. So each time I ride the little wave, then dry my eyes, get out of my car, and go into the next house.

Then, on Saturday night, on a sort-of country road outside Madison, three high school seniors were driving to pick up another friend when they were rear-ended. Their car swerved into the cornfield to their right, flipped over and burst into flames. They all died there, about 300 yards from one of their homes.

I drove by this grief four times in the course of a few hours yesterday, as I took a client to run errands. There was a big mound of flowers and gifts and small precious items and the whole area was marked off by huge orange barrels and watched over by a police car. Each time I went past, one or two teenagers would be standing there, just looking down the memorial, hands in pockets, faces strangely impassive and blank, as if feeling hadn’t reached them yet, but looking hard at the spot where it happened might heal the numbness. 

The last time I went by, around five pm, there was a larger group, nine or ten kids, huddled around the side of the road. But I saw out of the corner of my eye two or three of them had gone farther, had walked down into the great obvious gash in the cornfield, stepped deep into the curving wound as if to see death from inside. 

A part of me wanted to pull over and wait till they emerged, not get out of my car, but just sit and bear witness. I was already past by the time I’d thought it, though, onto my five-thirty appointment, carrying the image with me as a handful of aching memory, moving on with soft and steady steps.

Free Spirits and Cracking Skin

A week or two ago I was interviewing for a job and as I was describing my background the woman interrupted and said to me, “You’re sort of a free spirit, aren’t you?” I didn’t know what to say because no one who knows me has ever, ever described me that way and also because a free spirit didn’t seem like a very employable thing to be, especially in the context of home health care. So my first instinct was to laugh nervously. But she smiled at me across the little conference room, with a big poster behind her that said, Angels are often disguised as dogs, and added, “It’s a good thing!” So I smiled back and said I hadn’t gotten that one before, but maybe, maybe so.

To be fair, I have been realizing recently that though I’ll be thirty this coming spring, I’m not unhappy about it, or even particularly surprised. I’ve put in the time. I’ve earned a new decade. Here I am in a new place, all split-level houses and beltline highways and Menard’s, soaking in the practical unpretentiousness of the midwest, and I feel as if I can look down at myself, at my arms and hands and feet and legs, and see the marks of living.

That’s not particular to me. I suspect life is like this for you too. We batter ourselves around or are battered. Sometimes we sink real low or are lifted very high. The vast changes in altitude make things shift within us, and cracks form, cracks in skin, in sinew, in spirit, everything from barely-perceptible hairline fractures to gaping fault lines. They’re the inevitable tracks of time. 

And sometimes there is pain in them. Then we can hold them up, raise the shards of our arms, our crooked hands, up towards the sun, and the light will come through the cracks, making them whole and even mending them, like some ethereal kintsugi. 

This mending happens often, I think. Yesterday I asked Calvin, who is almost three, if he wanted to see my cello, and he followed me eagerly downstairs without even knowing what a cello was. I played for a little while, mostly old Irish fiddling tunes, and he danced, arms and legs and even rear-end all akimbo. I realized that it had been a long time since I’d played with someone else in the room, years probably, maybe since my grandpa’s funeral. And Calvin danced and laughed and clapped as my fingers stumbled along.

And I also think this mending happens to so many of us. Just a couple days ago, a client asked for an orange with her dinner so I found one in the fridge and began to peel it and then had to return to her with some embarrassment and say that actually it was a grapefruit and would she like that instead? She lit up with that precious little old lady joy which is so like three-year-old joy and said, yes, she hadn’t been able to eat grapefruits for a long time but her daughter had bought her this one special and she was so excited to eat it because it would be her first one in five years. Oh, her first grapefruit in five years, wouldn’t it be wonderful? How very, very exciting! So I went back to the kitchen, free spirit that I am, and continued to peel it, separating white rind from pink flesh, happy to deliver the gift.

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.

A Love Letter to July

I used to name blog entries after months much more often. In fact, if you were to dig back (please don’t) December and February actually ended up with two each over the years.

It seemed like a simple thing to do, to just say, here’s this month, for what it’s worth.  But I haven’t written like that in a while and just at present we are all in the midst of a seemingly interminable period of tension and unpredictability and confusion. There doesn’t appear to be much good reason to write about now. I’d rather hurry on past now, to be honest. I’d like to get to later as soon as possible.

But perhaps there is something valuable in taking stock of what’s currently around me, of not comparing it to my wider expectations and hopes (of which I have so, so many), of just saying, yes, okay then, this here is July. It may have strange privations and discomforts, but it has its own abundance as well.

I’ve just started a part time job in a long-term care home and my commute to West Van takes me through Stanley Park and across Lions Gate Bridge each time, inching in slow traffic through trees and low clouds and over the wide-stretching water. I get to deliver flowers to residents on their birthdays. I get to sit next to them and fill in a print out of a mandala with an unreliable set of washable markers and together we watch its petals slowly fill with color. I get to hold old ladies’ hands as I paint their nails, listen to them exclaim over and over at how nice it is to have the ugly chipped polish off, and isn’t this new red so beautiful.

On days when I’m not working, there’s blue, blue sky and sun on my shoulders and pasta salad. I get to watch my friend Lorna exclaim over every single fern in the UBC botanical garden. I get to read poetry in a backyard. I get to eat cherry jam with a spoon. I get to walk through golden summer grass in a school field that’s all going to seed and I get to take my car through the car wash. When I was a very little girl I used to be afraid of the car wash. I would cry, and a parent would hold my hand—it was dark and it roared at me from all sides. But now it is precious to me to sit alone in the dappled, swirling dim as the colorful splatter of suds is rinsed away, washes in torrents down the sides of the car, allowing the light back in. 

And friends, I get to write. I get to pile words in a heap and see what they yield.

A week or two ago, I got a card from my mom. Usually her cards have a Picasso reproduction or an old sketch from a 1940’s Vogue printed on them. But this one had only words on the front. It was a couple lines from a very tiny Emily Dickinson poem which I’d never read before: “Not knowing when the dawn will come, I open every door.”

So this here is July.

On Unwasted Time

Today I met up with a friend and she gave me a bag with four or five hand-me-down dresses. A few hours later, at home, I tried them on and looked in the mirror and cried. I think I can count on one hand the number of times in the last three months that I’ve worn a dress. It’s been so long since I felt pretty, since I felt like I was going somewhere. 

So far, this year has been hard to understand. I’m certain I’ve learned many things, but I don’t know what most of them are yet. (This is one of the reasons I write: to find out.) I’ve tried to make meaning out of this time: I’ve written five and half chapters of a novel, I’ve had long conversations which have settled comfortable and weary into the nooks and crannies of already-established friendships, I’ve read children’s books, recently-released novels, and the Psalms, I’ve stared at the sky.  I’ve been reasonably content. The safe, quiet rhythms of my day-to-day life have made this possible. And as I’ve sat within, outside of my small world things have happened, risings and fallings and lives and deaths.

The world is all sliced open right now, inside-out and raw, and God, it seems, has plans for that. We serve a no-waste God. You know how sometimes people say that they heard something somewhere once and it really stuck with them? Well, I heard that somewhere once and I wish it had stuck with me: we serve a no-waste God.

I’ve spent a lot of time in young adulthood, particularly while I was teaching, wondering if I were wasting my efforts, my energies, myself. I cared about my students enormously, yet that didn’t always translate into helpful action. I feel very often as if I sit at the center of a little self-made vortex of material and mental chaos, and, more than this, I still cannot seem to crack the code of how to love others well, of how to have the right thing to say in the right moment, of how to be enough but not too much. Ultimately, I’m often quietly uncertain if I’ve got the peg in the right hole, if what I’m doing with my days, my hours, my minutes is at all worthwhile.

But still, I remind myself of the line from that Sara Groves song, “love is still a worthy cause,” and I am persistent. I continue to gather up the scattered threads I find around me, and, focusing hard, I weave them together this way and that, aiming to get it right this time. This is what writers do and this is what try-ers do. We do not waste. We save it all.

Yet perhaps the impact of these strange times, the big, lasting, eternal meaning they will have to each of us as individuals, is not in some novel or lightning bolt or any other shining thing you or I are working so hard to keep the locusts from devouring. Perhaps instead we will find that the value in these months and years has been in the things even we did not think to save, in the edges and the discarded ends, the repeated pains, fears, and failed attempts. So that, at the last, we will find ourselves in front of the mirror, afternoon sun from the window on our cheeks, weeping in surprise that we have been clothed in glory which fits just-so, woven of familiar threads which it took divine hands months and years to gather.

Repeating Wonders and New Mercies

Because it’s practically summer and there’s still a pandemic on and I’m an adult and I can do what I want, I’ve been rereading old favorites lately. I may eventually wend my way around to some Laura Ingalls Wilder or P.G. Wodehouse (one of my more worthwhile middle school obsessions) but recently it’s been Flannery O’Connor and the Narnia books.

My grandma too used to reread her favorite books over and over, aloud to my grandpa and aunt in the evenings. She always spoke about it as if doing so were a bit of guilty pleasure, as if she knew she should stretch herself with something new, but Emmy Keeps a Promise was just so comforting and reliable, with its stories of boarding houses and clams. And rereading is a comfort. I picked Narnia up on purpose because I was searching for comfort, for a bit of stability, for a well-trod path. 

But though many of the things I’ve been reading lately are familiar, though at certain points in my life I’ve been known to corner people and monologue in my enthusiasm for both Voyage of the Dawn Treader and O’Connor’s “Revelation,” I find on rereading that though I thought I’d already analysed them to the hilt, their deep roots and truth are alternately knocking me upside the head and stealing softly into the echoing, aching cavity of my chest all over again.

I used to think this sort of thing was just a process of something hitting me differently than before or on a deeper level, but I don’t think that’s always the case. Sometimes the same thing is hitting me on the exact same level. I am Eustace dragoned and undragoned, and I am part of Mrs. Turpin’s beatific procession into the sky. It was this way last time and it will be this way again. Everything strikes me fresh, though I remember it striking me fresh before. I am, it would seem, in a constant cycle of forgetting and being reminded.

My first temptation upon realizing this is to chastise myself for forgetting. To tell myself to learn better this time, to please actually retain and apply this knowledge, for goodness sake! But I have quietly begun to suspect that this is not the best approach. I have begun to suspect that on a certain level I was made for this cycle of amnesia and wonder. The Lord intends us to have to keep coming back and beginning again, over and over. It is one of the ways that he teaches us to become like little children. As Chesterton wrote, “We die daily. We are always being born again with almost indecent obstetrics.” 

We are so often concerned with decency and propriety and progress in ourselves and in others, when instead what is on offer is the promise of messy, glorious rebirth, a rebirth which, spurred by a children’s book, a simple meal, a passing comment from a friend, may happen almost hourly. His mercies will, in fact, be new over and over and over. This, apparently, is the life our good and full-of-mirth God means for us to have. 

And every spring we get to look up into the trees through the new leaves and relearn green as if we never knew it before. Every time.

A Few Things I’ve Needed to Hear Lately

-Most days you will wake up angry and sad. You will be angry about a sickness which we cannot see or, even months in, seem to understand as it creeps between us. You will be angry about the fear which now ripples beneath everyone’s skin and will continue to for a long time. You will be angry that you can’t be home in sticky North Carolina heat this summer, even for a week. You will be angry that you can’t hug your friends. You will be angry about the price of cheese. You will be angry that you need to put away your laundry. You will be angry that the sun is out. 

It will be tempting to try to fix this anger, but you can’t. It will keep happening nearly every morning. What you can do is sit on the floor, which is oddly comforting. You can have a cry and put away the laundry. The sunshine will seem more friendly by midday. Buy the cheese anyway.

 

-The presence of the people you can be with physically and the effort of talking with the people you can’t is not just some time-filler or coping mechanism. Even when conversations are marked by uncertainty and anxiety and vague fatigue, there is something lasting building at their core, some kind of tough relational metal which can only be forged in circumstances of earnest, shared precariousness. These persistent conversations and interactions have more goodness than you know hidden in their quiet, circuitous frustrations.

Really, you and the people around you, the people you care about, have been given specifically to one another in this moment. So watch out for them, cheer for them, be patient with them. And when you fall down on the job, get up and try again tomorrow. It will be okay.

 

-Slow down. Breathe the good air. Listen to rain on the roof when it comes. Let that be your only plan sometimes. One truth this experience is obstinately handing to many of us, over and over, is our own creatureliness. We cannot have it all or do it all, we cannot set up the perfect system for our worldwide operations or even for our own daily life that will protect us from human frailty. We are severely limited. In fact, we are utterly dependent on those around us, and, more than that, on the Maker who breathed and loved us into being. 

And that’s unabashedly good news. Sure, the fear crawls beneath your skin, you keep waking up angry, and you’re almost always tired when you hang up the phone, but you are the precious child, the needy child, of a Creator who delights to be needed, who made this world not for you conform to it or conquer it or shrink from it, but that you might abide in and with the fruits of his labor and his joy. So go ahead, kiddo, be small today.

Quarantine Sundays

I spent the last week trying to pull together an entry that was really high-minded and meaningful, but then trashed it in favor of what follows. Sorry. In some ways, this one is more for my own personal future reference than for any outside readership.

I look back over the last weeks of my journal and I find there is a pattern. I realize that Sundays have usually been the hardest.

I’ve never been good at sabbath. I procrastinate too much all the other days, and my work has always seemed to bleed over, so I’ve never really learned to treat it as something special in the way I ought. But now the world is holding its breath and things move so slow (when things move at all) that I find even when I’ve spent ample amounts of time dawdling all week, I can afford to have a mostly free day on Sunday. 

And these still Sundays are hard days. I feel waterlogged, crumpled into myself, bogged down with tired. Within the extra quiet my fears get loud and so I journal and I read and I watch sitcoms and I call my mom and I sit on the floor and look at the sky out the window. And I know I could go for a walk, but I did that yesterday. (I’m sure Vancouver is always beautiful in the spring, but I strongly suspect that it has never before been as beautiful as it was this past week.) Finally, I think to myself that this rest thing is frankly pretty exhausting and I might need to spend the next several days recovering from it.

My church service is in the evening, and when I do at last sit down for that with my housemates, it helps. It honestly does. In a way that I cannot always manage to choose on my own, it takes me gently by the shoulders and guides me a few steps backwards so my view’s a little wider. Don’t look so close, honey, it whispers.

Backing up is often frightening. I am increasingly realizing that I don’t like the unknown. I’d rather lean into the here and now, my nose close to the glass of it, peering around for decisions I can make which will help me feel safe, for things I can control. So at first when I back up I shiver because I look in both directions and all I see is blankness and more uncertainty. I don’t know what will come next in my life now, and I don’t know how much any of those other things I did a couple months ago in the other lifetime really mattered, so I end up feeling a bit like Ozymandias with the barren sands of time stretching out on either side.

But if I stay backed up just a little longer, if I dig my toes into those sands and take a few deep breaths of fresh air, I begin to remember that my constantly-droning inner monologue is not the only voice in existence, that it is not always the infallible truth-teller I imagine it to be. And I perhaps remember that, faithful as he’s always been, the Lord holds his tired, befuddled children in his hands, even on quarantine Sundays.

Gentlenesses

I’ve slowed down a lot in the last week or so. I’m still plugging away at schoolwork and even turned in a couple assignments today (!!!) but many things are an effort. They’re an effort I am willing to make, but now—like perhaps many of you—I am encased in molasses rather than air. I’ve gone into half-hibernation.

On Saturday I read some Wendell Berry stories for a class. I hadn’t read any of his fiction in years, though I’ve gone around enthusiastically criticizing it to many people, so this was a humbling experience. I still think his work is far from perfect: he rambles, he tells rather than shows, he moralizes too obviously, and yet in each of the four stories there was some moment at which I caught my breath, at which he whispered something obvious and gentle and I ached for it. Funnily, this softness had always been the reason for my disdain. I am, deep within myself, decidedly sharp-tongued and in literature have always taken pleasure in the absurd, in the uncomfortable, in the narrator who’s just a bit biting and takes no prisoners. Yet the gooey corners of Berry’s limping stories kept wandering into my heart and giving it rest in a way it hadn’t had in weeks.

I’ve recently begun to notice this gentleness everywhere I can possibly encounter it: in the patient calm of other customers at the grocery store, in softly querying texts from friends, in the easy quiet of my housemates, in sun on pavement just beginning to be dappled with spring leaves. I subsist on it, I breathe it in.

A rare sincerity seems to permeate so much of our culture right now because of shared crisis. It’s a quality which has the potential too easily to become saccharine or shrill or moralizing, but which also presents us with perhaps more opportunity than we’ve ever had to become the meek and the pure in heart, to inherit the earth and see God.

I am often nowadays uncertain about what to do, what should be done, what can be done. I hate being uncertain. But I am reminded by Berry—and by others who are perhaps nearer and dearer—that gentleness is within all of our capacity. So be gentle in thought, in word, in deed. Be gentle in prayer. Be gentle when you see your own unaccountably tired eyes in the mirror, when you see loved faces pixelated on a screen, when your newsfeed fills with fright and noise. Be gentle. Other efforts we make may fade, but this will last. Gentleness takes pause, biting your tongue, backing up and trying again, but I sometimes think it is the greatest power we have at our disposal, right now and always.

Perhaps gentleness—steadfast, unyielding tenderness—is one of the strongest forces we have against evil, against pain, against hysteria, against fear itself. It does not defeat these things, rather it dissolves them. It simply makes weapons drop when it appears on a battlefield.

I became convinced during my years teaching (and have occasionally been reminded during my time at Regent) that it is not the gentle who need gentleness the most. It is the sharp and recalcitrant, the ones who have forgotten that it is possible to speak or be spoken to with mercy, the ones with the sometime hearts of stone. In other words, it’s each of us.

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.