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.

Time Being New (and Time Being Old)

As of today, I have been in Vancouver for exactly a month, and I continue to gain bruises here and there from falling down things (like the stairs) and walking into things (like the table), which I suppose is proof that I’m not yet quite oriented.

I’m reaching the deeper level of homesickness now where I have a bank account and a bus pass and I’ve been to all my classes at least once, and even submitted a couple assignments, but when I see my former students pop up on social media on their class trip to Italy it feels like a welcome relief. To laugh to myself at their extra-polite smiles as a teacher takes their picture is much easier than reading the dozens of new faces, some with their own glazed expressions of fresh homesickness.

So what I am trying to tell you is that it’s hard to find some neat, coherent topic for a blog entry when everything is new. Everything is new except, of course, for all I bring with me: my loves, my habits, my fears, my socks, my memories, and my sweaters. Those things aren’t new at all. It feels like a Herculean task to marry the past and the future into the now, but in reality, it will happen on its own, so long as I let it. I will wake up one day and be comfortable.

But for now, as Auden says, I have “the Time Being to redeem from insignificance.”

So here are things to hold on to:

-I just did laundry, so I got to sleep between clean sheets last night.

-Everyone here, without exception, has been so kind.

-It is wonderful and a little nerve-racking to be writing for a grade again. It makes me feel like I’m growing.

-A couple days ago, when I ran into another first-year student at Regent, I said, “Oh hello, friend!” without even thinking.

-I have written two poems since I got here: a poem about life back home, and a poem about life here. The one that is currently nudging at the back of my skull is about the people around me now, so that’s a good sign. Onward and upward, through the “Land of Unlikeness”!

Seismic Shifts

In less than a week I move to Vancouver. This is the age of change, of the ground moving beneath my feet, but not mine only. Just in the last week or two there have been shifts around me as well: coming marriages, births, deaths, my dad turning sixty, my sister able to go back to London at long last, and two weddings to attend in the next three days. Time is always marching on, of course, but occasionally there are days when we actually feel that, in all its wind and its weight.

Last night my family had a goodbye party for me, which was very sweet. Many kind people prayed for me and we ate chocolate mousse and drank what rosé there was in the house so my parents wouldn’t be stuck with it.

Then afterwards I couldn’t sleep, maybe because all the changing and churning of the world beneath me had gotten into my bones and was making them ache. I don’t know exactly. But I got up and read the beginning of the book of Matthew.

It starts with a list of genealogies: marriages, births, deaths, tectonic plates grating against one another as the earth turns round and round, and then it announces the coming of Christ.

An angel arrives and tells Joseph that everything Mary has been saying is true: she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins. Beneath the heaving, quaking breaths the earth keeps taking, there is a fiery core, a binding promise, a wonder: He will save his people from their sins.

Sunday

When I was in college (which sometimes now seems strangely long ago), I used to decide I was going to write a blog entry, and just do it. I would begin (usually on a Sunday like today), and just go, not knowing where the winding trail of words would end up, only trusting.

I am sitting in my apartment with the AC off and all the windows open, because this morning my roommate found fleas (ugh), so we set off bug bombs this afternoon and now I am airing everything out. The sun is warm on the back of my neck, and I am happy.

School starts on Wednesday. I haven’t taken the time to be sentimental about it, but it occurs to me now that maybe I should. Writing about what I do all day doesn’t give those things their value, but doing so certainly helps me to understand them.

This will be my fourth year in front of a classroom, my fourth year in the working world, my fourth year as neither a student or a child. I have changed. I have changed so much that sometimes I wonder if I show physical signs of it. Do I walk more quickly now? Does my voice have a slightly lower register? Has the shape of my face stretched and sharpened?

But much more has stayed the same. Maybe it’s silly to say that and post it to the internet, which is a place renowned for its daily hysteria over change, but sitting in a quiet room reminds me that it’s true. There are vines which press themselves against my bedroom window, and they are just the same shade of green as the ones I used to play in and around in my backyard as a little girl. A warm room full of indistinct laughter and talk still sounds the way a full stomach feels, the same as it has for centuries. We all still walk around carrying little burdens of trepidation and confusion and annoyance and wornout cares, which would have looked perfectly familiar to the ancients. We still sing.

All of this hints to me that the truth of the matter is not so much that everything changes, but simply that I am growing up in God’s world, and everyday my eyes see more of it: the good, the warped, the beautiful. There will be moments I will meet which will be discouraging, and of course I may allow myself to be discouraged by them, but I must remember that there will be other moments coming, and then more and more. One day, the more will become most, I will meet my Lord in eternity, and my education, my child-growing-to-adult years, will be complete. I will be ready to begin the real business of living.

So that’s how I’m trying to begin this fourth year out in the beautiful old wounded world: worship and keep my head up, so that as I grow I won’t miss a thing.

Things I Hope I’ve Learned by Now

Always say what you mean and not what you don’t.

If the lives of your friends seem always to be moving faster and more smoothly than yours, remember that the cure for this misconception (as with most misconceptions) is simply to listen more.

Buy yourself flowers whenever you please.

Plan a way to balance work and relationships and sleep and books and church and time to clean the bathroom. When you fail at balancing and fall on your face in the mud, which I promise you will, calmly get up and try again. It’s worth it.

Gas and plane tickets are expensive, but they’re also worth it.

Notice when the sun comes out.

Stock up on spices.

Take it as a compliment when people think you’re older than you are and take it as a compliment when people think you’re younger than you are. This way you will get lots of compliments.

Thank your parents often.

Find at least two convenient, reasonably-priced restaurants you really like. This will come in handy when people want to “Get lunch and catch up.”

If you make a habit of accepting responsibility, others will trust you.

Indulge your eight-year-old self by unclogging blocked drains with baking soda and vinegar.

Guard good friendships with your life. They get more precious every year.

Be decisive. It will make you feel good.

Change your oil regularly.

Accept that some adults never outgrow their childhood meanness. Be kind, but wear armor.

If you ever begin to feel played-out, as if every thought you think is something you have thought before, just read something new. The world is a big place and you can never truly run out of fresh spaces to live in and dream in, even if that living is vicarious.

There is a good chance that most of your greatest fears about yourself are quite true. But be certain that they are entirely insignificant in the face of God’s vast, unending grace.

Christmas and Tradition

When I was growing up, Christmas meant Grandma’s. It meant long hours in the car stuffed with puffy coats, reading Dickens’ Christmas Carol aloud stave by stave, and then arriving in Missouri to cousins and orange balls and running fast on carpet in sock feet. Christmas meant crowded rooms and couches and beds. It meant all twenty-some of us choosing a favorite carol in order from oldest to youngest while siblings switched off at the piano. It meant sitting hip-to-hip with contented joy. I was in awe of those Christmases, so in awe that they sometimes made me forget myself.

But I am grown now, and no Christmas will ever be the same. My grandparents have been gone for over a year and the house is sold. The place we went is no longer ours and the faces which used to await our arrival have been buried. The things which made me love Christmas so seem to have vanished. So it is tempting to me to spend the holiday mourning the traditions and the stability that are lost. This time of year, I want nothing more than to run back to the comforts of childhood or even adolescence, to revel in the reliable beauty of those Christmas customs.

But I cannot return to those traditions, so instead I will try to remember the self-forgetfulness that they taught me.  Because Christmas is not actually meant to be about tradition. It is meant to be about the world turned upside down, shook to its core. It is the story of a remote corner of a poor place where a child was born to speak truth, and to sweat blood, and to die, that I may know truth, and be clean, and live.

Every year that is true. The foundations of our little worlds may shudder, the walls which kept us safe and warm may crumble, the faces around us may seem strange and hard, but every year, if we look up, a star calls us to Bethlehem. We are meant to follow its light, to worship and be changed.

On Friday, I read How the Grinch Stole Christmas to my juniors for storytime. I laughed through some of it, but some lines moved me:

Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small,
Was singing! Without any presents at all!
He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming! IT CAME!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!

I am grateful for the Child who has come to save, and I am thirsty for his grace.