Storing Up Montana

Last week was reading week and I went to Montana.

At five on a Sunday morning four of us piled into my silver Kia and drove down towards the border. I sat curled in the back with a blanket a dear friend gave me years ago. The sun rose. We stopped at diners and Walmarts, made arguably too many puns about Spokane and country music, and discussed the eerie beauty of distant crowds of white windmills scattered across sharp brown hills. We crossed range after range of mountains and we crossed the Columbia, which is so blue and so wide and shadowed by walls of crumpled red rock. I breathed in America.

The whole week had both a sense of home and away to it. There was an easiness in the proximity of the friends I was with. My friend Becky is staying in a big house in Missoula, so we filled in her extra bedrooms, and spread out our school work on various couches and tables and desks, positioning ourselves so that wherever we sat, we could see the sunny blanket of snow and mountain gazing back at us through the paned windows. We went out cross-country skiing for a couple days in the middle of the week, and stayed in a picturesque little cabin that night, but beyond that there were no real plans. In the evenings, we cooked big dinners, drank wine gradually, and sprawled ourselves on the enormous sectional couch of the house’s basement. As is often true when I’m in a group, I was nearly always the quietest, but for the first time in a long time, this didn’t make me feel self-conscious or left-behind. I realized I was sitting in the midst of real—if hard-won—contentment.

Often, both in my life while I was teaching and in my life at Regent, I have found myself shuttling back and forth at record speed between two modes of being: relational and informational overload, in which I am busy doing and being all things for all people, or, when I leave that for any extended period, total solitude, in which I enter entirely into the lively twists and turns of the world within my own head. These spaces are not bad in their own right, but neither are exactly peaceful. Yet this past week was something else entirely, a space I think I’ve rarely inhabited, and which is probably more healthy than we know. It had finite limits of people and time and place, but we were aware that what we had provided for ourselves, what our God had provided for us, was abundant and, more than that, good. The trip gained its own patterns and jokes and worn footprints of house and food and snow and car and we shambled along in them.

Also worth noting: while we were in Montana, I skied. (Just cross-country, don’t get excited.) Anyone who knows me knows that I essentially never try new things, especially not physical skills. I knew this was out of my ordinary and was surprised at myself for even being willing to try, but I didn’t think much more about it than that. And then we got there and I did it, and it was massively uncomfortable. I still have bruises because I am very, very good at falling down—it feels more natural to me to fall than to stay upright—but that’s not, as you may have guessed, the sort of discomfort I mean. I am not graceful in learning, I am not graceful in being taught, I am not graceful in growth. Yet despite some pretty public frustration, I did learn, I was taught, and perhaps I began to grow. At the very least another new hole was knocked in my crusty, defensive shell, and fresh winter air came rushing in.

And now, a week later, with a bit of distance and a bit of thought, I think that was pretty good progress. Eventually, sometime the second morning of skiing, the bright cold sun, the weight of the snow on pine boughs, and the rhythmic click of my boots fastened into my skis all took over and I forgot to fall so much. So that’s something to file away, something to save, something to settle back in the attic of my mind.

I’m grateful, is all. I’m grateful for a week for the seeing of things and the breathing of things. On Wednesday morning it was very cold and very sunny. I was walking back from the washrooms to our cabin with dirty hair in loud snow pants, and a little bit of snow sifted down from the trees just ahead of me. The air caught it like glitter and it shone like anything. I couldn’t stop smiling.

Darkness and the Coming of the Light

When I was seventeen years old I wrote and presented a final thesis paper before graduating from high school. It was on happy endings in children’s literature. My eyes were so wide and so bright. I had a theory, a theory much older than I was, that I touted proudly: “Darkness declares the glory of light.” (That’s T.S. Eliot.) All these stories, I said, all the aching and groaning to be made new of the old fairy tales, was evidence of the coming of newness. It promised that goodness existed, and was on its way to save the day, that there would be some big old thunderclap of what Tolkien called a “eucatastrophe,” a good catastrophe, and everything would come right again.

But it’s been a decade now, and even in your twenties, ten years can plumb wear you out. I have had enough seasons in my life at this point in which mere mental and emotional survival were the name of the game, that I have stopped thinking so much about happy endings. In fact, I hardly think about them at all. Instead I think about balance and kindness and repentance and making the best of things and getting up and trying again tomorrow. That’s what we all think about.

Yet it has occurred to me in the last day or two that while none of the things I focus on now are bad—in fact all are quite good—they’re all a little shabby and mortal in comparison to the golden language I dreamed in at seventeen.

Advent began on Sunday. And in Advent, we think about waiting. We step into the darkness and we sit there. We sit in the depths and we call out to God for newness, for the coming King, for a hundred promises fulfilled, and it is in this practice that I have remembered.

On Monday afternoon, I spent a lot of time wrestling with Christmas lights in the atrium at school. I didn’t ask for enough help in finishing up decorations, and then once all of them were finally up, strung back and forth above everyone’s heads, a little fuse inside one of the plugs, a thing no longer than my pinky nail, blew out and they all went dark. The thing which was supposed to do nothing but provide light and joy instead hung heavy and dead. We replaced the fuse. It blew again. We bought more. Another one blew. I replaced that one. I cried once and laughed more than once and gained a new electrical skill. Finally someone brightly suggested we use an extension cord to split the lights up between more than one power source. Fighting against darkness is hard, particularly on your own. I’m being a bit facetious, but I’m somehow also in danger of sounding trite. I am grateful for help.

Then yesterday was Regent’s Advent chapel service. It’s an entire liturgy of songs and poems and scripture, and we do most of it in the dark, with the exception of a few candles at the front. Throughout the last song they bring up all the lights in the room one by one, and you can begin to see the faces around you lit, emerging out of quiet gloom (glory! glory!)

After the service was over, a staff member came up to me, in front of several friends as we were sitting down to lunch, to say that he too had been watching everyone else when the lights came up, and that I had been beaming. I know, I said, I know. I did know. But I was also a little embarrassed at my joy. My friends laughed gently. I felt like a child.

I felt like a child.

And on that mountain men will forge                                                                      

From cruel implements of war

The tools to till and garden soil:

The rose will bloom and faces shine with gladdening oil.

 

Seer and Seen

I have been working in little fits and starts and pokes over the last week or so on an entry about God’s gentleness, and how it has been especially evident to me in this season of my life, but it has occurred to me that just recently, I have not necessarily been behaving gentle myself or as if I believe God is gentle with me. So perhaps if I were to post that a few people in my life might feel it was tinged with hypocrisy… Thus there has been a change of plans. Instead I am going to tell you about something which seems to me simpler, but just as true, and just as difficult to believe.

For the last few days I have been fiddling around with a little what-could-one-day-be-a-poem. If it were ever to be born properly, it would be called “Seer,” but I don’t think it will ever emerge into the light of any one else’s eyes, because I think Luci Shaw has already written it several times over. Instead, I will just tell you here what it was wanting to say: God is much more busy seeing me than I usually give him credit for.

He is seeing me when I leave half-finished blog entries and poems scattered at my feet.

He is seeing the cinnamon I put in my oatmeal.

He is seeing me parking my car in the same spot every weekday.

He is seeing me run my fingers along the top of the circulation desk at the library as I move to help a waiting patron.

He is seeing me arrange books in leaning piles on my bed to write first one paper then another.

He is seeing me sitting on the floor of the entryway of my house talking to my mother on the phone.

He is seeing me shuffling through old fall leaves which I hope will not stick to my boots.

He is seeing me remind myself about dinner.

He is seeing me drive late past the huge glowing Christmas tree on Valley.

He is seeing me lose track of the conversation my friends are having and look instead out the window into the dark.

He is seeing me going through the familiar motions of digging for words and setting them up next to each other, teaching them to be friends.

He is seeing me fall asleep, later than I should, curled tight into a comfortered ball.

He is seeing me.

He is seeing.

And—if I may end where I began—he is gentle.

This Too Shall Pass

My time at Regent is starting to feel short, which is funny because if all goes according to my (current) plan, I’m still less than halfway through it.

Nearly everything in the here and now feels like gift: shiny shoes, tired eyes, slim volumes of poetry, sky that turns to gloom so early we are left reading in glow of lamplight at five pm, the walk through UBC to see my favorite books, a friend waving at me two-handed in the library, and the pattering sound of the people of God in Korean-style prayer yesterday, speaking to our Lord separately but also all together.

And I am most particularly aware in the last few days of the small acts of love offered by those around me. Over a year ago, as I was settling in to Regent, I wrote an entry about receiving the kindness of others and how it was a difficult, but needed, transition for me after teaching. But the goodness so often given to me now has a different, deeper flavor to it, because now, these people offering their hands to me in ways I do not deserve, they’re no longer nearly-strangers. They’re friends. They know what I need and I know what it costs them to give it. And yet, I am inundated here by unsought gentlenesses: a letter in my box, thoughtful suggestions of what particular courses I would love next term or next summer, food shared without ceremony, immediate patience and forgiveness when I am suddenly reactive or awkward, or simply someone who is inexplicably pleased to see me. 

Once I would have seen these unmerited offerings and kindnesses only as damning evidence of my own need and failure, reminders of my capacity to fumble with what I’ve been given so that others are regularly having to come in and pick up the pieces. But gradually I am learning to see them as more, much more. These, too, I am learning to see as gift, heavy in their humility and their glory.

Yet, like I said, my time here already seems marked with an expiration date, and even these acts of love and the bright eyes that offer them seem ephemeral and fast-moving. I’m having to learn these enormous lessons on the fly. I will not always be here in this place, slogging through this exegesis book, wearing this green velvet vest, walking on these autumn leaves, supported by this stubbornly present community. All these things will pass.

But I will walk away into the rest of my years bearing a hundred messy thumbprints of now. And I have a hunch that with time, they will not fade, but instead deepen and multiply, an ever-accumulating revelation that grace endures. Grace endures and burns bright. My eyes can handle a little more of the light today.

A Resuscitation of Pity

I’m very pleased with the above title, but what I have to say may not live up to it at all. There is a chance that I am too tired to write. My life here overflows with good things: with picture books and friends and half-full bottles of wine, as well as hurricanes of blue-grey sky, neon-bright autumn leaves, and flashcards about ancient eastern monastics. I have capacity for little else right now, least of all the ability to be particularly coherent in writing, but I do have something to say. So I will try.

I’ve been thinking about pity, and how we’ve given it a bad rap. To be the object of someone else’s pity, we think, is clearly a fate worse than death. If someone pities us then they have put us down, called us unable, relegated us to something second class in the structure of the relationship or community. And so, for our part, when we (Lord help us) “feel sorry for” someone, we try as hard as we darn well can not to show it, because that would be rude. It would be rude to expose another’s need, rude to let it slip that we care. 

We don’t want to offer help and make it seem that we think we’re better than them, forgetting that just last week we ourselves were too tired to button our shirt straight or emerged from the bathroom with a face puffy from crying and next week we may be tasked with a job which is more than we can handle or realize we don’t have money to make rent. We forget the thing about pity which blows this perceived haves-and-have-nots structure out of the water: we forget the reciprocity of it all, a reciprocity in which there is commonality and connection. Any of us can extend pity and any of us may find, at any moment, that we need it.

But more than that, I am quietly becoming convinced that pity—this nearly innate response to the awkwardnesses and great open wounds in other people, wounds which can fester and even stink—is an essential piece of every love actually worthy of the name. It is the thing which teaches us to hold our tongue or to speak up when we would not otherwise be able, to make the pot of soup or to say yes at a moment when it wouldn’t occur to us. Pity is the thing which makes us want to hold a baby.

In fact, pity strikes very near the core of nearly all good things. If we cannot accept the every day garden-variety pity we find directed towards us, the human hearts aching and human hands reaching feebly out on our behalf, how can we possibly encounter the weeping, bleeding heart of God? If we deny pity its chance to act upon us, we deny the One who breathed life into us in the first place.

The Voice That Tells You What to Do

Fall term is back. Praise the Lord.

I had a conversation the other day with a good friend about the voices that live in our heads. The ones that tell us who and how to be, which lines to walk and which ones not to cross. We were sitting in my car and I said to her, “I get the point of the voice, I do, we all need to self-moderate, but I just wish it could be a little more gentle.” 

That’s so rarely the case with me, though. The voice in my head is shrill and bossy. It sticks to the facts and refuses to have empathy or feelings. Alice, it says, you know very well you have too many of those already. I provide balance. It tells me that it knows best and diligently drowns out outside voices, particularly if they’re speaking words of encouragement or (heaven forbid) affirmation. It rules my inner world with grim determination.

I quarrel with the voice at times, sure. I even rebel and refuse to heed its warnings. But I never really try to banish or change it. I act helpless, blaming its never-ending critical commentary on those around me, but its sharpest barbs and accusations are almost always self-concocted–my heart condemns itself. The truth is, I cling to its harsh legalism, and protect it from anything that might dismantle it, like others’ soft prodding in slow, intimate conversation, or like a sermon or article that is tied up at the end with a doctrine of grace that I feel is just a little too neat, or like, you know, Scripture itself. I do this because I am deeply convinced that this endlessly grating voice which speaks the lines I write for it is ultimately the only thing holding me back from the brink: from darkness, destruction, and chaos. I whisper to my soul that maybe I can save myself with the stringency of constant self-berating if it turns out, as I sometimes suspect it might, that no one else actually wants the job.

I’ve already tipped my hand, but here’s the kicker, the bit where we must hatch or go bad: Someone else does want the job of saving me. He wants it very much. He’s said so. And if I actually believed an all-powerful, all-knowing God deeply loved me, me with all my self-centered minutiae, me with my “great sloth heart,” me with these desolately empty hands, then that would change everything. If I actually believed God loved me I wouldn’t need the voice anymore, or at least the voice as I have known it all my life. If I trusted what he says about letting the little children come to him and about Father, forgive them, then I might be able to take a gulp of fresh air, and tell the voice that it’s not really so important as it thinks it is, that really my Lord (my Lord) knows all about the brink, has been there and back again. I could allow the voice to become a little more firm-but-gentle, still and small. 

And once my feet had begun to root into this new reality, this blinding-bright land of hesed, and my lungs had begun to adjust to their new expansive climate, I might even relinquish control of the voice entirely, let my God tell it what to say. And then, who knows? It could begin to tell an entirely different story than any I’ve yet understood. It could start to speak in the reverberating tones of Love himself.

Within Love

I’m a little hectic right now, though the Fall term hasn’t started yet: vaguely over-committed with just one too many writing projects, one too many side jobs, one too many email inboxes, one too many friends. Wait, no, that can’t be right—but I can’t find my spare car key right now. That’s the main thing. (No, no it’s not.)

Particularly when I feel like this, it is easy to forget. It is easy to forget the real main thing: to love the Lord your God. And when I realize I’ve forgotten—well, realizing somehow does not fix things. I say, Alright now, Alice, remedy the situation. Learn to love. Do it right, for God’s sake. And I come at the thing from the direction of my love instead of his, which is magnificently ineffective.

Then yesterday, I came across this in Lewis’ “Weight of Glory.” It was not a lightning-bolt, but instead a low, rumbling comfort, like thunder from the far side of the mountain.

How God thinks of us is not only more important, but infinitely more important. Indeed, how we think of Him is of no importance except in so far as it is related to how He thinks of us[…]to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son—it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.

So it is. And so I’ve been remembering (the proper, continual remedy for spiritual forgetfulness.) I’ve been remembering the taste of things. I wrote a series of poems for a course I took on food last Fall about how the memories which are inevitably tied to certain foods for each of us can serve as a gateway into the transcendent. Predictably, a year later, I am actually learning that lesson for myself. A few times in the last few months, I have tasted something and “Oh!” to myself. All simple things, sometimes absurdly simple: raw garlic, plain olive oil, okra fried in cornmeal. All tastes of my childhood, of a hot kitchen with shiny pitted floorboards, of something sizzling and something boiling and then my mother’s cold, laughing hands on the back of my neck just to make me jump. These things are particular to my sensibilities and my past, of course, but though yours may be different, we all have them. These are the tastes of love, and not just its outer rim either. These savory-sweet, dizzying flashes are from the inner core of love, the part we are rarely ever brave enough to acknowledge, the heavy part, the honeyed part, the realm of holy delight.

And though I so often forget, I’m certain: this place we are shy of talking or even thinking about, this buoyant golden heart of God’s love, is where we came from in the first place, our actual homeland, the place we belong even now. Funny thing, but so it is.

Classes start in a couple weeks, so things will fall into place soon enough. The car key will turn up. The sun is out and the sun makes things grow.

What Words Won’t Do

This August, I’m writing. I’m writing four papers (none of them terribly long), a first novel chapter, whatever bedraggled poems come begging at my door, many, many to-do lists, and now this blog entry. Hello.

Not to bore you by belaboring the obvious, but I love to write. I do not always find it easy and I rarely find it simple, but it has become to me itself a way of loving. When I see something or someone, really see properly, my first instinct is to write, to conjure out of that spot of time the requisite words, then to order and reorder them till they say the true thing and the beloved sits shining before me in verbs and vowels. Words for me, one who struggles to throw away even the most decrepit of old flannel shirts, are a means of well-ordered, small-s salvation. (You see why I’m attached.)

But, to my continual frustration, I have not been able to explain in words the sort of summer it’s really been. I’ve tried to explain: to others, to God, most often to myself. Yet I cannot, no matter my angle of attack, capture the sort of creeping growth crawling through me as of late. If I look at it, try to catch it in the act, it stops.

So I’m endeavoring to settle in and accept that. Just because I can’t articulate in words what I’ve gained in the last few months doesn’t mean I haven’t learned. (I mean sure, if I can’t properly describe such things, then clearly I’ve failed to fulfill the learning objectives as stated in the syllabus, but, lest we forget, life is not an academic exercise. Thank God.)

Though I cannot draw any succinct conclusions, and words are not arriving on their cues, I can offer a few small tokens: pictures and sounds, things you could hold in your hand for a moment or two.

There has been Pomp and Circumstance playing in a big North Carolina sanctuary and me in a soft brown dress and tired eyes stepping into the line of processing faculty as if I’d been there all along, and there has been a week or more of tires on the asphalt of the interstate: spinning round and round and round but also moving forward.

There has been that ferry ride back from Victoria in the afternoon sunshine with my mother in the seat beside me, while I clutched tight a children’s book I’ve never read before, leaning in to its last melancholy pages with every ounce I had, and there has been the trick pilot who dove and danced and generally defied death in the blue sky above English Bay a couple weeks ago, and the looks of dumb, gentle awe on the faces of the watching crowds at Kits Beach.

But most, there has been this intermittent and wandering sound of my keyboard while the traffic hums soft outside, and there has been a jar of bright, fresh-cut, wild-ish flowers bought for $5 from a homemade stand outside a quiet house on 14th Street.

There have been these things.

Learning Tears

I thought I would wait until I was in the right mood to write this one, but it has finally occurred to me that I wouldn’t know “the mood” if it marched into my room and smacked me up side the head. So here I am. Still full from lunch, in a little bit of a hurry, and writing.

I’ve always been a crier. I am not, on average, sadder than most, and I’ve certainly been given a very good life—the deeper parts of me are just constantly in touch with the surface parts, and that’s all there is to it. Many people who read this blog know that already. A close friend once told me cheerfully that she would be surprised to have a conversation of any great length with me in which I didn’t tear up at some point. I know I’ve found a true friend when I can begin to cry in their presence and absolutely nothing in their manner toward me changes. And as with any activity one participates in with frequency, I’ve tried to become good at crying. I mix tears liberally with self-effacing laughter, I almost never ruin my make-up, and I rarely sniffle.

But a change has come over my weeping in the last year or so. Perhaps it is the release of no longer teaching and needing to hold the feelings in all day, or the occasionally overwhelming changes wrought by my move to Vancouver, but ultimately I think it may be evidence of a more gut-level shift. Whatever the case, my tears are more and more often mixed nowadays. They are no longer merely sad or hurt or tired. There is often a piece of them, sometimes a sizable piece, which I might call awe. And several times in the last year, I can remember crying for joy.

I did not fully admit this change to myself until this summer, I think. In both of the classes I took earlier in the summer (on the Psalms and on George Herbert) I found myself moved to tears, spoken to, intruded upon by Love. I’m taking a class this week on the theology of desire and it will very probably happen again. The crying may get in the way of taking notes.

Tears have been a part of my rhythm of life for so long, but it never occurred to me that they could be part of learning, that they were complex or strong enough to bear connections not only to my own sticky inward minutiae, but to whole sunny shafts of the hope of glory. But, of course, it seems inappropriate, unseemly to cry during a lecture. Tears make others worried and uncomfortable. People so often feel pressure to do or console or fix. They are unlikely to understand my act of crying simply as evidence of my tuition dollars at work, that it means I am being educated. 

But I must rely on the well-practiced silence of my tears, and not allow myself to be waylaid or cowed by the potential concern of others. The tears which leave that tough, tangible residue on my cheekbones are busy teaching impossibilities, and often Gospel ones. They gather up and weave close the threads of things I once presumed to be far distant from each other: sadness and joy, discipline and gentleness, need and abundance, and my slow-beating heart and the God-made-man who came here, close enough to touch, and died for it.

Promises

This entry is about two entirely separate things. Please do not try to draw any sort of philosophical, metaphysical, or, least of all, theological connection between the two. Failure to comply may result in misery and confusion. (Exceptions will, as always, be made for literary connections.) Thank you for your cooperation. 

Last week I took a class on the Psalms, and all week they felt very near. This is perhaps a bit inevitable when you listen to someone lecture on a single topic for six hours a day, five days in a row, but nevertheless, the intimacy of those ancient poems, even the ones I’d heard and read dozens and dozens of times before, was startling. Then, as I walked home from church the other night, past the large, still houses and moss-grown trees of Shaughnessy, I realized why that might be. 

I’ve always been hyper-conscious of my good fortune in terms of Christian community: I was born to parents who loved the Lord and displayed that well, and have spent literally the entirety of my life up to my neck in Christian education. I’ve always had more Godly potential role models than you can shake a stick at. Many people may assume that the danger of such a saturated environment might be complacency, or a resentment and restlessness that leads to rebellion, and that’s true for some. But I think that my problem, though I’m still overwhelmingly grateful for what I’ve been given, is that I was so aware of God’s grace towards and concern for the little and large worlds around me that I never, for more than isolated split seconds at a time, took a chance to comprehend His grace towards and concern for me.

But the Psalms blow all this out of the water. They’re full of thoughts of the community (and the nations at large), but they’re also brimming with the voices of individual psalmists claiming God’s promises for themselves–promises of justice, of salvation, of forgiveness, of wisdom, of provision, of mercy, and of righteous, shot-through-with-holy-light love, all for the poet and his singular heart. Not once, not twice, but probably dozens of times as I sat in room 100 last week I found myself thinking, “But has this always been true? Has it always been possible to be alone in a room with God in this way without a chorus of other voices? Has Psalm 103 always had those words in it–confidently declaring that he knows us and understands our human dustliness? Has Psalm 139 always announced with such great firmness that the God of the universe holds the author in His own right hand? And why does this make me weep? Has He promised something to me as well?”

But now for something completely different.

Yesterday, for no particularly constructive reason, I thought through my whole history as a writer. What sorts of things I’ve written at various periods in my life and what I learned about writing as I went. For the first four or five years that I wrote, from the ages of about thirteen to seventeen, while I cared that I was good, I didn’t really care about getting better, perhaps because, with some teenage combination of naivete and arrogance, I didn’t know that was possible. And strangely, I find myself enormously grateful for that, because in those formative years I was motivated only by the joy of the thing. In the years since, as I’ve encountered my own limitations and struggled to stretch beyond them, that joy of the thing has perpetually hovered in the periphery of my vision. I have never once ceased to see words as friends. Thus they began, and thus they will remain.

They are my friends even now in graduate school as I have been tying myself in little mental knots trying to prematurely decide on a direction for my final creative project. And, as often happens, I’ve landed back where I began. I’m going to write a novel, a story which is at gut-level far more important to me than the one I wrote as my honors project at Grove City. 

I have a (very new) theory, that when you get a good idea for a piece of fiction, to help it come to fruition you have to hover over it like an egg that needs a mother or a warm incubator to hatch. You trust the mysterious natural process, and eventually something living will burst forth. And as of last week I have an idea, an idea that I’m fairly certain of, so from here on out if you’re trying to find me I’ll be busy hovering. If I am patient and keep a steady hand, one day there will be words on a page to show for it. And that’s a promise.