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.

A Child at the Ocean

I went to Galiano Island with a couple sweet friends for a few days over the weekend and stayed one day longer than they did. First thing Sunday morning, I dropped them off at the ferry, then drove back to the cabin, took a bath, and climbed down the rocks to the water in my bare feet and big orange sweater.

I felt sad—sad that my friends were gone, sad about everything—but I was grateful to be sad. I am beginning to think of sadness as a privilege. Pain and fear are universal, but sadness can only be where happiness has been first. More and more I think the two are near cousins.

It was chilly on the rock. The tide was low and fog mixed with smoke from the fires in Washington sat on the water, painting all things a thick, soft grey. As I sat three otters swam up right beneath me, slithering and dunking in and out of the water, then when they reached the shore, shaking the wet out of their eyes like dogs, and gleefully crunching up some kind of snack they had found on the rocks just below. The mother caught sight of me almost immediately, kept an intent watch on me for about thirty seconds and then decided I was too close for comfort and led her little ones away. They went with her, happily jumping on her back and somersaulting and sliding back into the water again.

I thought about how little I knew about these creatures—the only vocabulary I had to describe them was hackneyed and uncertain—how little I knew about any of this. I didn’t even know how the tide worked. I felt like a child come to the ocean for the first time, but with no parent by my side to turn to and pepper with questions: why does the tide ebb away like it does? And more importantly, where does it go when it leaves? Does all the water that was here just tip over to the other side of the ocean—as the water pulls back from us, it rises on some distant beach in Asia? I imagined the Pacific like a bowl, a cradle, rocked daily back and forth by the hand of God, salt and water and life sloshing up first on one side and then the other. What lullaby did he sing over us? Was it the plaintive seagull cries wheeling above me or something even beyond that?

Part of me felt I should rein in my flight of imagination—how could I not know the science behind the tides, and who was I to make up fairy tales in their place? But I couldn’t help myself. Crouching there on that great grey rock, just above where the barnacles began, I was the youngest I had been in a long time—the saddest and the least certain and the most content. It occurred to me that I hadn’t known that I would have to become younger to grow up—but I ought to have known. I was told all along, unless you become like little children

On Unwasted Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Myself In

This Monday I decided I wanted to be a writer. You may think I’d decided that before, but no. I hadn’t. This was different. For almost as long as I can remember I have wanted to write, to make beautiful things out of words and to make them the best I can, but the idea of earning money for that work in what the publishing world so frequently reminds us is an “oversaturated market,” has always seemed unbearably intimidating and practically impossible. The writing itself was much easier. I’d make money some other way.

But then, this week, I took a good hard look at my future in this strange time when none of us really know what the future holds anymore, and something in my stubborn little mind rolled over and sat up. I was going, I suddenly decided, to sell this novel. I was going to get it published, people would buy it, and I would be a writer. And immediately it was much less frightening to be off the fence than on it.

So I have spent the last few days reading up on agents and agencies and submission guidelines and how to write a query letter and whether my novel is literary fiction or book club fiction or maybe something called “upmarket commercial.” I also, for the first time in my life, wrote a fan letter to a favorite author. She’s eighty-five this year, so I figured I better get that done while she was still around to read it. I have been busy.

And, of course, I have been writing, properly writing. I will have a novel draft for my final project by the end of the summer. I’m sure of it. Back in college when I was writing a novel I spent a lot of time telling everyone how emotionally exhausting it was. Sitting down to do the deed this time round, I remembered saying that but assumed it was just 21-year-old melodrama. Friends, it was not. (Though it’s also possible that I’m chronically, incurably melodramatic and that this blog is the evidence. But I digress.) In the nicest of ways, I might lose my mind

I knew going into this project that it would be very personal. I wouldn’t just be lightly drawing on my experience teaching as I wrote, but the entire novel, I knew, was really going to be born out of that experience. I did not know, though, the ways I would be returning to my own time in high school, my own teenage self. Doing so is not painful exactly. Compared to the hellscape they are for some, those years for me were really pretty pleasant. But still they, along with the girl who lived them, seem to me at times to be unbearably fragile, strange and translucent. To dismantle the person I once was (and sometimes still am) and press odd, bright bits of her into the corners of my story with my palms, like a child with Playdoh at the kitchen table, is surreal.

So I’ve been coming up for air tired at the end of each day, and occasionally asking myself if it has to be this intense, if writing really must involve my own self-disembowelment this way, but I think it must. For characters to be real, I must put a piece of myself or at least a piece of someone very dear to me, into them. I think I’ve said this here before, but it probably bears repeating: writing is for me a way of loving. And I want this chance to offer up pieces of myself for years to come, for the whole rest of my life. The only way to relieve myself of my own solemn solipsism, is to roll over, sit up, and joyfully give myself away.

Repeating Wonders and New Mercies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things I Forgot

Yesterday I sat in the sunshine in the atrium at school. It’s not the first time I’ve done that in the past few weeks. I forgot these days would come.

Spring has always been my favorite, but somehow up until a week or two ago, I had lost all memory of its existence. I am usually walking back to my car from Regent well after dark at the end of some night class or another, but one day, wonder of wonders, I left in the daylight and there, right before I got to Kings Road, was a crocus, big and bright and purple. It hit me like a punch in the gut, a punch that knocked the wind back into me. I forgot to wait for spring, but it came anyway.

This sudden remembering has been happening a lot recently. The other day I sat in the library and reread my journal. I began this particular one in June of 2019, which already seems a couple lifetimes ago. I do tend to reread, but only what’s recent or feels relevant. I don’t usually go through beginning to end like it’s a book with something worth saying, but this time I did, and, somehow, it was. I was reminded of the terrible-wonderful, solitary struggle I had with God this summer as I began to face up to the fact that he loves me. He actually loves me. I poured a whole lot of confusion and excruciating gratitude onto those pages. But now it’s a whole different year and the hip which had been displaced is back in its socket and I’ve apparently moved onto other revelations as if they matter just as much. But they don’t. And now I remember, or begin to. He loves me.

So though the weight of distractions is heavy, I am trying to look out for signs, signs to remind me of all the things I had forgot: fresh air that makes me somehow lighter as it enters my lungs, buds on the trees that are pink and white and sometimes green, the moon brighter than anything, and the tree on the median which I can see from the bus stop, the one which is always the last to bud in the spring and the first to flame out yellow in the fall, but which grows deep green moss on its trunk all the year round.

I forgot that these things happen. I forgot.

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.

Just Showing Up

It’s snowing. I just got back from my evening church service fifteen minutes ago, and outside under the golden street light I can already see a delicate icing sugar layer building up on my car. The air is colder than it was.

I like to think that most of the time what I write on here touches on the universal, but I’m not sure that what I’m about to say will. To some of you it may feel quite foreign, and I run the risk of being a writer without an audience. But on we go, because putting words into the white is longstanding habit.

I’ve realized recently that one of the things which I have learned to treasure since coming to Regent is the value of just showing up. If there is somewhere to be, an invitation given, an event planned, you say yes, you go, you just do it. Of course, I always thought of showing up as valuable: good for us, good for the people around us, good for building up everyone’s favorite abstract concept–community.  So be reliable, be committed, show up. You are participating in what people around here call “the ministry of presence.”

But it used to be that doing so made me sick to my stomach. I thought showing up for things had paramount value, and for years that value came with extra tasks attached: I was supposed to fit in, to be bright and charming, to have something to say, and just please, for God’s sake, be more than an odd, oblong lump in the corner. When I was tired or overwhelmed, or feeling particularly shy, the pressure was nearly paralyzing. Once, I tried to go to a new Bible study with kind leaders who had repeatedly invited me but ended up instead in a grocery store parking lot about a mile away, weeping uncontrollably. I couldn’t do it. I went home. 

Showing up was the thing which always took the most courage, more courage than facing rooms full of teenagers daily, more courage than giving a commencement address in front of hundreds of people including a handful who had sent me less-than-kind emails, and more courage than quitting the job I had always wanted. Showing up was terrifying.

But somehow my paradigm about showing up has shifted. My sense of its value has become keener, but it’s not so fearsome as it used to be. I’m not sure what precipitated the change. Maybe it was sitting silently, taking notes in dozens of RCSA meetings, maybe it was writing a tongue-in-cheek article about being shy and publishing it in the school newspaper, or maybe it was merely my mother telling me that anyone who liked me would like the fact that I was quiet in a group, because that was a part of me and there was nothing wrong with it. (Believe it or not, this had never occurred to me.) But whatever it was, I have stopped thinking of showing up as a performance, a pulling together of all my emotional resources to understand and adapt to a new environment, and instead started thinking of it as a simple physical action. Showing up is getting on the bus, getting in my car, walking into the room, sitting in that chair. Showing up is merely that: showing up. So what if you sit alone and don’t manage to string more than three words together? Those are separate challenges for another day, maybe for never. You showed up.

And somehow, I have learned that, by some divine grace, this much simpler duty still participates in the ministry of presence, still contributes to community, still matters. When I stop and remember, I realize that perhaps it always did. My junior year of college I gave a paper at a small academic conference my school was hosting. I invited some friends to come, including classmates from a seminar. Only one person from the seminar came. He slouched in wearing sweatpants right before it began and sat in the very back, likely the only STEM student in a room full of English scholars all discussing metaphysical poetry. Afterwards, he approached me briefly, complimented my presentation as a matter of course, and then was gone. I didn’t need him there. I wasn’t particularly anxious, I had other friends present, and frankly, in that moment he was just an odd, oblong lump in the corner, and yet I remember feeling particularly touched. He had showed up just to show up. It was an important act, and the beginning of a real friendship.

So, more and more over the last year, I have unconsciously begun to take his approach to showing up. And in doing so, I’ve learned things. I have learned that in giving myself permission to be dumb and dull and quiet and small, I am aware of my God’s gargantuan love for me, even when I shrink to this size. I have learned about sitting in the middle of that love and straining my eyes to see the place where its waves touch its sky.

I’ve also learned that simply physically showing up and giving myself no other necessary task than to sit still in the palm of my Maker frees me. It frees me to occasionally be bright and charming. Sometimes when I show up now, I even have something to say.

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.

Two Hundred

I wrote my first entry here in October of 2010. I was eighteen years old and I wrote that I was starting this blog “in good faith.” Today I am writing my two hundredth entry, and I write in gratitude. Eight and a half years ago the girl curled on the desk chair by the ground floor window that looked out over Pennsylvania’s blazing autumn colors could not have comprehended.

She could not have comprehended the strangeness of the many precious and painful ebenezers along the way: the hands and the handwriting, the shouting and whispers, the nights weeping and the nights laughing, the holy silence of falling snow under midnight small-town street-lights, the vast emptiness of hands one Thursday morning at eight a.m. as the copier churned industriously behind me, or the steady plod of my own two feet up a green hill in Wales. These things would have baffled her. She could not have borne them.

But mostly she could not have comprehended the way this virtual space has functioned as a room of my own, as perhaps my most constant home of the last decade. Here I can slide words onto a string in complex order and hold them up to see if the light shines through, then try again and again until I get it right. Here I have over and over set myself the funny, laborious task of saying what I mean, of telling the truth both straight and slant. Here I have learned over and over the ever-piercing lesson that I am not alone in my fears or my joys, that there is nothing new under the sun, that there is always some other sheep lost in the same thicket, and more than that, beautiful and wrenching, that “grace is enough. He is enough. Jesus is enough,” and he loves even me. Here, two hundred times over, wielding only a softly blinking cursor against a blank expanse of page, I have grown.

Thank you, little two hundred.