Broken Ice

It’s February. February always gets to me and this year I think it’s gotten to everybody. For my part I’ve spent the last week or so ruminating over the realization that it’s vulnerable to hand my work off to someone else for feedback, to let it out of my control. As I face a second revision of my novel, I’m suddenly very aware that I don’t quite take naturally to creative collaboration, that when doing what I love, I like to work alone.

Then this morning, I had a library shift. Around noon I wheeled a cart out from behind the circulation desk to shelve some books and saw movement out in the garden. Regent’s library is underground and to the west there are tall sliding windows that face onto a small rectangular reflective pool and three sharp tiers of a much-beloved vegetable garden which lead up to street level. I haven’t seen a human being in that space in months. Yet before my eyes were three boys scrambling down the ladders which lead from one tier to another, leaping like monkeys, clearly drawn by the lure of the icy pool below. One of them immediately swept up an eight or ten foot garden stake which lay unused. Then they saw me standing a few yards away and all three froze, the smallest with the stake poised above the pool. 

The boys stared at the librarian lady and I stared back. For the briefest of moments I contemplated rapping on the glass and telling them off which was clearly what they expected, but then sanity prevailed. They were hoodlums certainly, but small ones—the oldest was no more than thirteen. And besides, I understood. I understood in the depths of my soul what they had come to do. It’s been colder than usual for Vancouver-winter the last few days, and every time I’ve walked past those windows I too have found that dull, wrinkled ice enticing. How thick is it really? I wonder. Surely paper thin… But what if it was thick enough to crunch when broken? What if it could take the weight of a leaf, a stick, a toe? And imagine how a stomp would do it in…

So with a nod of respectful approval, I turned my back and pushed away my cart of books as the boys got down to work, though I desperately wanted to stay and watch. In the next few minutes, I passed by as often as I could, praying they would not get caught by anyone else. But things are quiet here still and no one else materialised. Best of all, the ice was thicker and putting up more of a fight than expected—they were only able to make cracks and gouges, no matter what weapons they used to attack it. For some reason its hardiness delighted me. On my third pass by I expected at least one would have gained the courage to step out and test the water with his own weight but instead I saw only the disappearing heels of the smallest as he climbed the highest garden ladder, the long stake still in tow. I stopped again and gazed out over the garden, mourning their absence and wondered idly if they would carry that huge garden stake all the way down Wesbrook Mall. 

And then, up above at ground level, the tip of the wood stake appeared hesitantly over one of the railings. I grinned. Oh, how I had underestimated my friends. They knew physics. They knew about gravity. There was a thump and a clatter as it fell. 

They did not return to retrieve it. Accepting, I think, of the failure of their venture, they left the stake nestled on ice which was still only just cracked, a testament to a valiant, collaborative attempt at joyful destruction. Still smiling, I went to find a pen to take notes.

Thanksgiving Week 2020, Vancouver

In the last few weeks, new Covid restrictions have gone into place in BC. I know that as we’re moving into the dark grey part of the year here many people around me are feeling anxious, discouraged, sad. I have to confess though—I’ve been happy. The quieter things become here, the more I write, the more unnecessary layers I put on to walk in the forest, the more comfort food I eat, the more often I clean my room (it always needs it), and the more pleasant my to-do list becomes. 

On Tuesday when I went into school to work my library shift, I waited for the bus mid-morning in restless November weather. The wind blew up and the rain whipped round me as if it had something to say. I spent the first couple hours of my shift frantically pulling books for curbside pick-up. It’s paper season and since people aren’t allowed to browse the stacks themselves right now, they request whole shelf-fulls. In fact, all day I found that we were all, myself included, a little more needy than usual. People needed extra books they’d forgotten to put on hold, weren’t sure which of the multi-volume set they actually wanted and had to pause to flip through and decide, kept hanging around just to chat a little. It reminded me of some of the sweeter aspects of my job teaching—many of us, I realized, seemed to have gone back to seventeen with anxiety glowing in our eyes.

As I left for the day at three-thirty, I was rushing, juggling bags, fumbling to get my mask off and on with gloved hands. I emerged into a world that was pregnant with light. The sky had been slate grey for weeks, and now a thick orange sweetness, like honey, was leaking out not from behind the clouds, but from beneath them, nudging itself into every nook and cranny, catching in its path the last of the fall leaves which we’d stopped noticing, reflecting off sharp glass buildings with startling transcendence. One part of the sky had opened up blue and in it there was a huge rainbow, so large I could not see it end to end. As I rode home on the bus, we passed many people standing on sidewalks and medians, their faces upturned, staring at it, drinking the light.

Sometimes late at night when I curl up in bed and wait to fall asleep, as I allow my mind to toddle off in various directions, I find that I am crying. But I am thankful for the tears. For a while I couldn’t cry. And now I can. Hopkins says, Peace “comes with work to do…He comes to brood and sit.”

Manna and the Dreamers

As of this month, this blog is a whole ten years old and I had forgotten until last week. Life goes so fast and is sometimes so strange, but I am grateful. 

Once, in my presence, my mom mentioned my blog to a friend. “Oh, what does she write about on there?” the woman asked. “She writes about herself,” my mom said, ever matter-of-fact. It’s true. I do. And when I was eighteen and nineteen, it was even more so. I wrote about the minutiae of my small-town college life, dropping friends’ names and occasional inside jokes left, right, and center. As I’m sure is patently clear, I’ve become a very serious, cautious grown-up now, so I don’t do that anymore. I’ve moved on to larger visions.

And yet. This last month or two, I have had the urge to dream big about things—about the future, about my writing, about the world in which we live. It’s an exhilarating feeling, but all this time I have been tethered by the practical and sometimes frustrating realities of my current circumstances: the closed borders, the anemic bank balances, the incorrigible uncertainties. When I was about sixteen I went through a particularly quixotic phase in which I liked to assign colors to my days when I wrote about them in my journal—and the worst of these, the days that were like regurgitated cardboard, were always tan. It is easy just now, when comparing this trudging time to the glitter of my dreams, to classify every day as tan. But to do so would not be fair or true. Because there has been manna—small, perfect morsels fallen at my feet from heaven, day by day by day.

I spent a Sunday with the house to myself, listening to podcasts and cleaning the bathroom.

The fall leaves in Vancouver this year are gold and red, which I was prepared for, but also all sorts of ombres of orange and green and blushing pink, which I wasn’t.

The other day I used my black school bag for the first time since March.

Saturday night was the birthday party of a dear friend. We huddled outside around two firepits, roasted marshmallows which singed our fingers when we ate them, listened to and half-watched a long playlist of folk tunes on Youtube. We were very, very happy.

I ride the bus some days.

I spent an hour this morning pulling books from shelves for a much-anticipated guided study next term, until I had a tall pile.

And I’ve been rewatching some of the best TV ever made: Grand Designs and Mad Men—both of which turn me into Miss Rumphius when I finish an episode, eager to step out into the world and make it more beautiful, more beautiful with lupines or homes or words.

We know what manna is because Exodus tells us how God provided for his people in the desert. They were there much longer than they ever thought they would be, wandering round and round while hoping for the promised land through decades of wilderness, eating the sweet, particular nourishment which God sent straight out of the sky. And as they fed on it, they dreamed.

Grieving Normalcy

For the last week, ever since classes were moved online and the ground caved in beneath us, I’ve been making notes for a blog entry. It was supposed to be about how to retain normalcy in strange times, something I’ve been fighting for in many sectors of my life. In fact, fight for normalcy is pretty much all I’ve done in the past several days. I’ve worked to follow guidelines, but beyond that, I’ve tried to be creative within them, maintain an abundant life for myself and those around me that bears some semblance to the life we used to live just days ago.

But today, because of a variety of external and internal factors, I have come to the edge of my can-do, make-it-work attitude. That sort of entry just won’t do at the moment. There will be time later to talk about wearing lovely clothes even though no one can see and–to wildly misquote T.S. Eliot–to talk about the taking of toast and tea. There will be time later for a discussion of the new normal.

Tonight, here, I am grieving.

A friend dropped a couple things off to me this afternoon. I came out and stood barefoot in the idyllic spring sunshine on the patio and leaned against the wall. Several feet away, she leaned against her car in the driveway. I said that I was sad about everything and she said that she was angry about everything, and we wept beneath blue sky and budding trees. We were crying for everything we had tried to hold onto in the last few weeks, everything which had slipped through our fingers with terrifying alacrity as if we’d never really had control of it in the first place. We were crying because we had been given love, but seemed to no longer have agency to express it in any meaningful way. We were crying for our fear and our smallness. 

This past Monday was the last day I went into Regent. I worked a strange, ghostly library shift and about ten minutes before it ended an older woman came in with her husband and told me that she had just had cataract surgery and wasn’t able to read her list and could I please help her find the books on it? I have never in my life been more happy to help. I took her list and bustled around, pulling book after book on the Psalms and the life of David plus a couple recorded lectures besides. I piled my findings on the counter in front of them with pride. And that evening, a friend asked me in and made me tea and we sat on his couch and talked about coffee table books for half an hour. Coffee table books.

I am grateful that in both of these moments I had my wits about me enough to see their brightness. There are and will increasingly be many things to mourn. You may have your own list pattering in your head already. But for now I am grieving the glorious mundanity of the gift of human interaction. I am mourning the normalcy we have lost, the good structures which we thought held us up, made us whole.

We’ll grieve these things together, friends. We’ll grieve together, helpless, at the feet of the great Helper, Healer, Maker and Lover of our fragile souls and selves.

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.

2019 Retrospective

2019 is almost over. The light goes fast here now. It is fully dark by five. We are coasting into the dimness, into the time of year when we have to scramble for some kind of torch to light our way, hold it up high above our heads so we can see. And yet, with Christmas coming, with Christ coming, there is so much light to be grasped.

I’m trying something new, and I feel unusually self-conscious about it. I remember a favorite professor back in college saying that perhaps the greatest writing achievement was the composition of a really good Christmas letter, one in which people actually enjoyed the update on the odd particulars of your life. I’ve thought of this often over the past few years, and so now, at the risk of being self-indulgent, repetitive, dull, or perhaps even all three at the same time, I am going to write to you about my year as a whole. It’s been significant enough. I ought to have something to say.

The first thing I did this year, according to my January 1st journal entry, was sleep in. The second thing I did was wash some collard greens. In the year that followed, I got brave and then I got comfortable and then I got tired. 

This has been a year of riding the crest of the wave (and occasionally being swept under), of continually finding myself in places I never expected to be. And though I can point to large events that precipitated this sort of change, it really took root, became habit, breath, life, in subtle, small things: in dozens of emails sent to Laura and received from my mom, in a few too many conversations about the enneagram, in a thousand library books scanned in and out, placed in order, handled, checked out and read, in a couple hundred poems carefully chosen and formatted and agonizingly laminated in a persnickety machine.

My months and days and minutes have been made up of these things: I brooded over a few papers like the Holy Spirit over the wounded world. I wrote more poems about riding the bus. I made pizza on a snow day. In a historically ridiculous turn of events, I became one of the vice presidents of the student council. I drove across the stillest, largest parts of America.  I substitute taught for a few rooms of twelve-year-olds. I served communion. I gained most of a new wardrobe through thrifting and clothing swaps. I was very sincerely asked out by a stranger while walking down King Edward Ave. I went to IKEA.

I cried in a hotel in Golden, BC. (And other places. I cried other places too.) I did a lot of reading aloud: children’s books, my own poems and stories, Scripture. I sometimes woke up in the middle of the night to look out the high window set in my bedroom wall and found that the gossamer moon and I were the only two beings alive in the world. I held my closest friends’ babies and, more recently, a wiggly puppy. I watched fireworks set to music that you couldn’t hear. I organized events and fed people (but more often I was fed). I balanced a budget. I learned to love exegesis just a little. I fried okra in Canada. I tried to live expectantly and yet still found the unexpected everywhere.

And just last week, I had one of those moments that’s rare in adulthood: I smiled so much my face hurt.

Many of these sound like solitary pursuits, and some of them certainly were, but throughout so much of this year, I was with people: surrounded, close, bound to them by God’s ever-present mercy. It is this mercy with which all these things are ultimately shot through, like morning light. When I allow myself to sit still with my eyes open, I am astounded at the undeserved abundance, how much my God seems to love me and you and each and all. 

So there. Some light incarnate for us in the midst of rain and grey. And soon the earth will shift in its turning, as it does every year, and the light will push back against the dark and as the new year begins, days will get longer and days will get brighter.

And though the last lights off the black West went

    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —

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.

Limits

On Friday morning, I walked from Regent in spitting, non-committal Vancouver rain over to VST, another theology school attached to UBC. I had strained some previously anonymous muscle in the back of my knee the day before and was trying to baby it, but there was work for my research assistant job to catch up on and this library had a couple of books I wanted to see. So, trying heroically neither to feel sorry for myself nor to limp, I went. 

When I arrived, umbrella-less and therefore damp, I found that the library itself was tiny, tucked away, no bigger than a single public school classroom, and boasted a total of, I think, six study carrels. Despite the size I couldn’t find what I was looking for, and when I asked the librarian for help she told me that the items I wanted were in storage, and eagerly put up an apologetic sign at the diminutive circulation desk, pulled on her coat, and headed off to some mysterious other building. I sat and waited in the stillness which breathed back and forth between grey walls and a carpet I now can’t remember the color of. I felt a bit faint and tired (for interested parties, I had eaten breakfast) but also warm and content in this room with shelves so short and unimposing that I could see over all of them and out the opposite window from where I sat. When my new friend returned, she had brought me more than I asked for. This trend continued over the next few minutes as I began to read and the pile of books beside me grew, through no effort of my own. I dwindled and dawdled there for a while.

It occurs to me that my favorite spaces recently (or maybe always) have been small ones. I think of the RCSA office on the lower level at Regent, which is little more than a glorified closet, but a closet with a place to hang my coat, to make tea, with lamps that turn on with a satisfying click, and a couch where I can plant myself. I think also of my little front bedroom here on Yew St., almost always a mess, and full of a mishmash of my own things (dresses, pens, maps, a poster from Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia) and the things that lived here long before my time (beaded baskets, expired passports, a stuffed Pooh Bear, a green paperback Canterbury Tales.) And I think of the first small space I ever loved, of perhaps the first wonder I was ever conscious of feeling: the tiny layered world contained between the covers of a book. How is it that a whole wide cosmos, big enough to get lost in, can fit into my right hand?

I’m waxing poetic because I read a novel today. Thank God for Sunday.