The Lines Love Comes By

A couple weeks ago I had a training course via zoom for teaching AP Lit. After it was over, I went out to my car barefoot with just my license and my keys and drove to my parents’ where I retrieved sandpaper, a stud-finder, and two containers of my mom’s gumbo. It was a warm, thick Carolina night, just the kind I’d missed deep in my bones for the last four years, and when I got home and climbed out of my car I could hear the rhythms of a drumset echoing through the trees. The sound came from a house I could not see, hands I did not know holding the sticks. I stood there for a few beats, listening, grasping the moment against my chest—as you do—my hands full of odds and ends and the gravel of the back drive biting into my soles. Then I went inside.

I’m happier to be back teaching than I knew I would be. I’m happy to have kids back in my classroom, I’m happy to be talking about books I love all day long, and to be doing it in a place which, despite the ebb and flow of time, is still very much home. Yet I can feel myself already sinking into the mire I often felt stuck in four years ago—the mire where my job is my whole existence. To have only my job as an outlet, even for just a month, feels as if I’m funneling my entire self through a few very small holes. I’m antsy. I need a place in my life where I can bust through a dam. 

Maybe I can blame it on that moment when I heard those drum beats coming through the woods. Maybe it was putting up a gallery wall in my hallway yesterday with all the pictures of my child self wrapping her arms around people I love. Maybe it was the sound of the kids next door screaming and laughing and the smell of woodsmoke as their parents burnt scraps from their deck remodel. Maybe it’s been a million different things at once.

In fact, I think a part of the reason I feel the need for a channel beyond teaching is because of the bounty of teaching itself. When students come into my classroom they bring a messy stew of energy with them—happy energy, angry energy, anxious energy, hopeful energy. And then I get up and I try to explain to them why Anglo-Saxon poetry runs soul deep or how the source of Jane Eyre’s self-worth is the gospel and that this is why she has the capacity to forgive the way she does, and I watch bewilderment and understanding flicker intermittently through their eyes. I’m consistently amazed at how close observation, when I am willing to make it habitual, generates deep, rooted love. I come home nearly every day all full up not only of my own feeling, but also theirs. 

So I am brimful and I need another place to toss my words out like lines. There is so much to say, and, unsurprisingly, writing is my first port of call.

But recently with writing, I haven’t been sure where to begin. In fact, about a week ago, I made a list of writing projects I could be working on and there were about eight of them, none standing out to me any more than the others. So I put aside the list with vague despair. And then as I was cleaning up my living room one night before a friend came over, I remembered what pulled me into my last novel not only at the beginning, but what kept tugging and tugging and led me all the way through to the end. I was writing to the point where Jesus showed up. The beginning of the story was a promise and I was writing my way toward the fulfillment. His love pulled me on and on.

This is what all those moments I’ve been momentarily clutching to my chest have in common. Those pictures on my wall are a promise, the heady scent of wood smoke is a promise, the storms and sparks in my students’ eyes are a promise, and so, too, is that cadence of drums in the night air. They are all signs of goodness, declarations of God’s intention to fulfill what he has pronounced.

So as I stood there on the braided rug of my living room, three books tucked under my arm to shelve and a glass to put in the sink, I knew. I knew at once that I need to pick the project with that promise at its heart. I need to pick the thing that will have me write my way along some winding path to incarnate hope. I need to toss my line out in the direction of Christ, over and over, so that he may grasp it, and draw me closer in.

So, without even looking back at my list, I know which line I’m tossing. And I’m very excited.

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.

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.