Vancouver This May

A week and a half ago I flew back to Vancouver for the first time since I left last June. I was there for four full days and I spent just about every second of them feeling warm and wide-eyed. I forgot words a lot and at one point sat in the atrium at Regent next to a friend, looking up at the blue sky through the skylights and crying while she ate her lunch from JamJar.

Insomuch as I had coherent thoughts beyond “Oh, I’m so happy to be here,” and “Vancouver is green, green, green,” and “Will this person mind if I hug them for the seventh time in as many minutes?” I thought a lot about place and I thought a lot about presence. The importance of the two were all tangled up in my mind, and even now I can’t quite separate them, but perhaps that’s because they’re sprung from the same root.

I knew I wouldn’t be there long enough to get individual time with most people or to visit every place, so I focused on just being

I went from gathering to gathering to gathering in my rain boots that I didn’t need because of the sunshine. I posed for so many pictures with my arms around people, though I didn’t take a single one myself. I bussed home alone on the 25 one afternoon. At Melanie’s on Sunday evening, I unloaded the dishwasher and we all forgot for a moment that I didn’t live there anymore. And on Monday after convocation Jolene booked an Evo to drive me home and we both remembered that our friendship had really properly begun in a car-share three years before.

I saw so many people I was surprised to feel deeply connected to. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. I learn more and more as I get older that you never quite unconnect from anyone, ever, for better or for worse. Dynamics may change significantly, but the ties still bind. You feel them tugging, even when you’re not sure what part of you they’re attached to.

I’m always desperate for perspective of both the literal and metaphorical varieties, for an understanding of how things all fit together at the end of it all, and at one point during the happy, crowded grad tea at Regent, Heather and I went up to the upper level of the atrium and looked down on all the dear heads and motioning hands as people talked. I took a deep breath.

It was more important than I realized it was going to be to walk my two feet over all the ground I used to cover. I took a couple walks with my parents—one around my old neighborhood and one around Stanley Park—and both times I was met with a rush of something that was more like a scent than an actual memory of all my many walks and long, rainy conversations that had passed over that concrete.

And all the long weekend there was a little note of delight humming continually in me because even when I was inside, there was always abundance out the window—I’d forgotten about that mountain-sea-skyline view that rushes into your lungs like fresh air whenever you look north. It makes me feel like a child.

I flew home on Wednesday, saw two little brown birds contentedly hopping around in the big terminal at the Denver airport, just being, and then landed that evening in a Madison that was enveloped in a hot, humid, other-worldly mist.

The trip, which was really just there and back again, shocked me with the purity of its joy. A year ago, I struggled to leave Vancouver gracefully, to not completely let the tide of my own resentment over what Covid had taken pull me under, but, in a gush of undignified sentimentality, this visit restored things in me which I didn’t know could be restored. “I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten…” Even when I forget to believe the promises, they still turn out to be true. I just show up, hold out my hands in a posture of receiving, and God sends my roots rain.

On Going Home to Get Old

I have a client who’s almost ninety-five and recently, she’s been having a lot of trouble moving from one chair to another. She has trouble standing up from her seat on the couch, trouble shifting her tiny center of gravity so she doesn’t topple over, trouble turning around to sit on the seat of her walker so I can wheel her across the room to where her dinner waits for her on the table. “Oh, boy…” she says over and over to herself and to me, “Oh, wow.” And when she has trouble I stand there beside her, one hand on her back and one hand on her walker to stabilize each, having trouble right along with her. The whole operation is fraught with peril. 

I didn’t used to know this, I don’t think, but the great fear of the aged is not death—death looks relatively friendly to most folks in their eighties and nineties. The great fear of the aged is of isolation, of confusion, of falling, of no longer being able to see to read, of forgetting, of not being able to reach the phone or (especially) the toilet when you need them, of the embarrassment of soiling your sheets in the morning and having someone come in to clean you up.

Their fears are not lofty. They are normal and average and small and continually recurring, like most of yours and most of mine.

I realized a few days ago that, perhaps unsurprisingly considering my current job, I’ve been thinking about these basic rhythms and anxieties of old age for quite a while now. I decided back in December to move home to Greensboro come this summer, and while there were a whole host of factors influencing that decision, I think that this has been one of them.

It’s hard to explain, perhaps. I can very easily walk across a room unassisted and I expect to be able to do so for decades and decades to come. Yet every time Phyllis struggles to stand, to balance her hip bones over her foot bones, I feel an odd shivering kinship with her. It’s not compassion or even pity exactly; it’s awareness of the arc of a human life, that eventually bones settle down and calcify into dust, often while the person attached to those bones continues to live—continues to eat, sleep, defecate, carry on a conversation. I suppose I am tasting and touching and witnessing all the realities of human embodiment and place.

Not coincidentally, I’ve finally been re-reading Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow, at a very gradual pace. And while Jayber himself and Berry’s need for a more ruthless editor still annoy the bejeezus out of me at least a third of the time, the man knows how to be a human in a place, how to plant his feet in the soil his flesh will return to and live a whole life from a single spot. I’ve always found that idea compelling, but I think I might’ve forgot it for a while. It’s good to be reminded.

Anyway. This year has been a valuable detour—a gift in many ways, difficult in others, often both. I suspect it’ll continue to be all those things. I’m here for a few more months. But it makes a great deal of sense to me to take my thirty-year-old self back to the place where I was born, where I grew up full of aches and pains and joys, where I taught and learned, and dig my heels deep and make plans to be an old lady there someday. 

Plans can change, I know. But you’ve got to choose something. And perhaps it doesn’t really matter where you spend your final years, or any of your years. Wherever you are at the end of your life, you’re likely to have an over-cheerful caregiver who natters on loudly to you about the plot of The Truman Show as she pulls up your Depends like I did to Phyllis just the other day. But, then again, perhaps it does mean something to walk the same ground over and over for a whole life long in different sized shoes till you can walk no longer. I very much hope so.

January

This is my day off and the main thing I want to do today is write this. Write this and take a walk.

I spent almost two weeks at home in Greensboro over Christmas and New Year’s. There’s no real replacement for going right back to a place you’ve once lived, because only in person can you remember the little pieces of yourself that you’ve left embedded in its cracks. 

One night I was up late in the dark after finishing reading a novel and I sat on the top step of the stairs and looked out the window. I remembered how when I was a girl, in the winter, I used to wake out of a dead sleep, come blearily to this window, and squint out hopefully. Outside the yard and the cars and the trees and the pavement and the shed roof would all glint softly monochrome under the streetlights of the condo parking lot next door, and joy would wash over me. Snow. I’d go back to bed dreaming of school cancellations. Then my mom would wake me at 6:30 and I’d say, “No, but Mom, it snowed!” And she’d say, “No, it didn’t,” so I’d go to the window of the night before and find that everything was dull and damp and dark grey, with no hint of the magic I’d seen only hours earlier. 

I think a few of those mornings I went to school still fervently believing that it had snowed in the middle of the night after all, but it had melted so fast, and no one but me, alone at my window at the top of the stairs, had seen it. But as I sat on that step a couple weeks ago, I had to admit to myself fully—perhaps for the first time—that there’d never been glistening snow that had come and gone in the quiet hours with only a nine-year-old girl as witness, that what my sleepy eyes had seen was a trick of the light.

Because even twenty years later the way that streetlight sits on the yard and the cars and the trees and the pavements and the shed roof is something uncanny. It’s glittering gold that hangs in heavy wet air. When you look out that window at that time, the world is monochrome, but it’s not white like snow—it’s all other-worldly amber, born out of thoroughly unmystical street lamps crisscrossed with power lines. So perhaps it’s not so much a trick of the light as it is a gift of it.

Anyway.

I’m back in Madison now, going to work most days where I cook bacon and eggs and give nebulizer treatments and read novels in snippets and take out the trash and have the headlines of the Monday paper read aloud to me and sit listening to the puff of an oxygen machine while looking up at a framed pen drawing of a man sitting on a bench by a window, a man who is clearly waiting for something.

There is snow on the ground here—real snow, that shows up at all times of day. It brings with it a bright, dull hush—turning the sound of the world down and the light of the world up. So when I am not at work I look out the window at its whiteness and think through my novel, which is in its final stretch before I begin sending it to agents. I need to fiddle with the pacing a bit in most chapters, and write a convincing query letter and then, well, I try. I start clicking ‘Send.’

I’m hopeful about it at the moment. I’m hopeful about it the way I used to be when I’d pull myself diligently out of bed and sleep, to pad over creaking floorboards to a still, dark window. I’d rub my eyes and look. There might not be snow as I envisioned it, but there would be something waiting there for me, something worth seeing.

2021 Retrospective

I skimmed over the entries in my day journal to write this. It was a task I was dreading a bit, to tell the truth. But the more I read my little scribbled phrases, the more I found myself moved by the many small oddly-shaped pieces of the year.

The first thing I did this year, according to my journal, was “woke up sad.” And then that evening I watched Henry V with my family, with that impossibly long shot of Kenneth Branaugh carrying Christian Bale through the ruins of the battle. Within a few days, I was back in Canada, quarantining in an AirBnB, talking to friend after friend on the phone, and falling asleep at night to Derry Girls.

So that was the beginning. What followed those weeks of solitude was a sort of triptych year: five old-feeling months in Vancouver, three unrooted months all over the U.S., and four new-feeling months in Madison.

In Vancouver, I took walks and handed out books at curbside pick-up at the library.  We were still pretty tightly locked down most of those months. I missed in-person chapel desperately. But one night in February, despite it all, three friends and I got dressed to the nines, went to a dinner with wine and lamb shank, and pretended like nothing was wrong. Rach and I even shared lipstick. Also that month I did a project where I interviewed thirty people about clothing. Apparently on February 15, I interviewed three people over the phone, took walks with two friends, and watched a lot of Broadchurch. That’s about how things were. I made paper flowers for Easter with my housemates and I waited. Eventually, after much hand-wringing, I presented my final project and had champagne. Then I graduated, read a poem, and had champagne again. As COVID restrictions began to lift, I left.

I drove down to Lake Tahoe all by my lonesome and once there spent most of the two weeks either walking to the grocery store in sandals or curled up on the corner of the couch with a book or the hard copy of my novel draft. But my Granddad also drove us around the lake and the water was blue, blue, blue. Then George came and we drove Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and then home. We took pictures all along and I wrote too much and with the help of a friend put it all together into a laborious photobook as a souvenir of my summer angst. I helped my Dad make a quiz for a 4th of July party, saw old friends who treated me gently, ran into former students all properly grown up, and listened to so many audiobooks. I drove a lot of toll roads.

Then I came to Madison where I got used to baby spit-up on my clothes, read The Mennyms aloud, immediately joined the local library, watched a whole season of Survivor with Abby and Taylor and then introduced them to my favorite shows, and where, in October, my favorite thing of all was driving out to my clients’ house south of the city, through rolling green-black fields and blue skies. At work I started a project recording life stories, yet again interviewing people. I heard more about football than I ever wanted to, drove up and down the beltline so many times, tried to get used to being the help in other people’s homes, and went apple picking.

I lived in wilderness this year, though often not by choice: squinting over fields at sunsets, doing writing coaching while wandering in the woods, walking to the beach when there were beaches to walk to, hiking in Sierra meadows with my grandfather.

Yet somehow the mechanisms of life kept churning: I ate really good ice cream, read the best bits of Wind in the Willows aloud, had family video calls, left voice messages, made a new friend or several, went to the dentist, had two clothing swaps in two different countries, went on a handful of dates (not particularly successfully), ended up on Medicaid which felt jarring but not bad, and ate cheese souffle on my birthday like I did when I was a little girl. I received so much hospitality from so many people.

I was in Karen’s wedding, which was sweet but inevitably reminded me that I’m not much of a bridesmaid. I got several oil changes, and my check engine light now comes brightly on anytime I drive through mountains. I made a lot of s’mores and cooked a lot of eggs. I stayed with several cousins I hadn’t seen in years. I sat at a backyard table in Pennsylvania shelling limas from my mom’s garden, and ate a sub at a steamy, dusty gas station in Utah amidst shedding cottonwoods. And I read more than I have since childhood, discovering Kazuo Ishiguro and rediscovering Kate Atkinson and Anne herself.

Inevitably I did new things. I watched a friend play harpsichord in a garden, rescued a bird on my old college campus, visited the zoo with a toddler, injured my finger in a vacuum cleaner, gave sponge baths, made my first pecan pie, got my first COVID test, and finally posted on instagram.

And of course, I spent most of the year intermittently laboring over a single novel draft. Writing takes a long old time. I sometimes forget that. And most of my writing this year I did as duty, as task. It often seemed curiously devoid of joy.

Only in constructing this entry have I been able to admit something to myself: this year has been a lot. A lot of good, a lot of strange, a lot of difficult, a lot of a lot. And the last two or three weeks have been especially hard, so I’ve gotten uncharacteristically bad at getting back to people. Sorry about that, friends.

But the other day, I picked up the now-finished draft I hadn’t looked at since Thanksgiving. I skimmed and sometimes properly read it. I’ll tell you a secret: to my surprise, it wasn’t half-bad. All those plodding hours crouched in my chair or curled on my bed, balancing my laptop on my knees, had yielded something that was better than it had been before. So perhaps those who sow with tears will reap with shouts of joy, after all. And perhaps even 2021, in all its grainy, changeable, overwhelming detail, has yielded many things—not all things, but more than we know—that are better than they had been before.

Because today is the day the year starts to get lighter. And even now, in the darkness over Bethlehem, a star is rising.

Old, New, and Eternal

I have about two weeks before I leave North Carolina and move to the midwest. At first it was very quiet here, and then for the last week-and-change it’s been very busy. I’ve had dinner with friends most nights, read novels which have climbed into me (as all good novels do), marked up chapters of my own draft for revision, and sorted through all my worldly goods and wondered why there are so many of them.

I was nervous to be home. And I have not been very graceful in this in between space, suspended between a life in Vancouver and a life in Wisconsin, bound to the past on one side and the future on the other by thin threads which I mistrust, hanging over what I perceive to be a terrifying abyss. But the stones and earth laid beneath my bare summer feet here have often been steadfast and gentle. I’ve been struck by the patience and the enduring, unearned affection not only of my parents, but of friends who want to see me and listen to me even when I am less than pleasant, who warmly draw up a chair and lay a place for me though I’ve been gone a long old time. One friend told me the other day that if and when I did come back to stay here, I could live with her. She’d clearly been thinking about it for a while. I know that Madison is the next right step at the moment but I’m surprised to realize that I could want to have a life here again, sooner than I think. It’s a reassurance I did not look for, but it’s no less welcome for that.

This strange summer has been spent wrestling with the old and the new and whether either is worth saving. I’ve been dissatisfied and obnoxiously existential. Yet I’ve been looking, I realize now, for what eternal things I can salvage from past or from present or from future, for things I can stand on, rely on. My most deep and definite desire of the last few months, beyond all practical, obvious goods, beyond anything, has been to break into the gospels, right into the middle of Matthew or Mark or Luke, through the spine of the Book, into the crowded street where Jesus is, and to touch the hem of his garment, thin fingertips to dusty, woven fibers. I’m longing for such a flow of resolute holiness as I might receive in that moment, to drown the cacophony of other voices which course through me and exhaust me.

The steady goodnesses from my friends in recent weeks are not the same as jolts of healing, saving power, but they are reflections of it, “good dreams” as Lewis calls them, rearing their heads and yelping awkwardly and sweetly of eternity. They remind me that I do not need to know how everything works for me and for all those around me, past, present, and future, in order to trust in the razor sharpness and utter constancy of the life which Christ both promises and provides. The way ahead, whatever it is, will be hard but also simple. That’s just the way it goes. John Bunyan was onto something when he wrote about the straight and narrow. My existential abyss is more imagined than real. 

My parents are out of town at the moment, so this morning I picked the vegetables in my mom’s garden for her. It’s bigger than it really needs to be for only two people, but she loves growing things and there used to be more of us to feed. That garden has continued to be and continued to be every summer as long as I can remember. So I put on leggings and a hat to protect me from the elements, and listened to an audiobook. It was sticky and sweaty and itchy work: picking the dark purple runner beans from curling vines, my kitchen knife slipping easily through the stalks of okra and yellow squash and the stinging green stems of eggplant, crouching to rustle through the low lima plants, back and forth, over and under, looking for hidden pods, and then the cherry tomatoes falling red off the vine into my palm, dozens and dozens and dozens of them. At the end of an hour, I had a huge bowl wider than my hips which was full to the brim, a small mountain of color dusted with soil.

July Rain Walk

Last week (I think it was last week) it was raining—not drizzle, but big wet smacking drops, off and on in the late afternoon—and I put on my sparkly boots and went for a walk on my own. 

I went a different way than usual. Anyone in my family, if left on autopilot on the sidewalk in front of my childhood home, will walk the mile to the arboretum, near where I used to live. Instead I headed down Scott to the elementary school, cut across the field with its gravel path, and out to the back playground where the concrete basketball court is painted with a colorful map of the U.S., a map which is only very approximately proportionate. I stood above the top left corner where Vancouver would be, and then I walked the route my little brother and I had just finished driving a week before, all the way to North Carolina. I watched my feet closely as I went to make sure they were in the right place. When I arrived, I felt a little dizzy with how fast I made the journey.

Then I walked down the green hill behind the school and to the raised beds, full of poorly tended veggies. I was listening to another one of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne books—a middle one, sentimental and occasionally overwrought, but these qualities too are part of human nature. Past the vegetable gardens there was the grass amphitheater, with the steep bowl-like hill that kids slide down on trays or sleds whenever it snows, and the raised hump of a stage at the bottom.  

I wandered back into the woods and across the creek. The crowd of trees is not huge, really it’s right up against Market Street, but it’s crisscrossed with more little paths than I could count or ever knew were there. As I half-listened to Anne make yet another life-long friend, I imagined all the kids who’d gone to school here exploring these paths and wading in the water of the creek, hiding out, building clubhouses, getting muddy, feeling free and grown in the safe enclosure of the woods at recess. This hadn’t been my school, so it was only an imagining, but just thinking about it made me glad. The trees kept me mostly dry, and I went back home when I got tired of wandering in figure-eights. There was writing to do.

It’s raining again today and my mom is playing piano. In any case, I recommend a walk.

America So Far

A week ago I pulled away for the final time from the townhouse in Vancouver that was my home for three years, just a little teary. I turned on the radio to distract myself from what was happening and “Another One Bites the Dust” blared at me out of the speakers. So then I laughed most of the way to Oak Street. Thank God for absurdity.

It was a warm, sunny day and my housemate had sent me on my way with a container of homemade cookies, two of which she’d carefully shaped like hearts. When I came through the U.S. border after a line-up of two cars and one woman on foot, the agent told me “welcome home,” and I felt warm, because there is no better phrase in the English language, but I also felt sad thinking of everything that was now at my back. 

I spent the day driving through cities, and finishing listening to Where the Crawdads Sing, which I started on audiobook ages ago. The Seattle skyline was showing off in the blue and the sunlight, and by the time I got down to Portland it was one hundred degrees. Hallelujah and bring on the heat! Welcome home, indeed. 

I stayed the night in a little AirBnB airstream trailer in Eugene, Oregon, which was very hippy and very relaxed and reminded me just how buttoned up and bougie the West Side of Vancouver really is. I walked to the grocery store a few blocks away and liked seeing weeds growing in the cracks of sidewalks, and barefoot tattooed folks waving to me as they watered their front yards in the evening light. The cashier, who was inexplicably wearing a black wool scarf as a face mask in ninety degree heat, was friendly and chatty and asked what I was up to later. I told him that I’d been driving all day so my plan was to collapse, then realized that he now knew I was travelling and probably had enough context to look down at the three items he’d just bagged for me and know they would comprise tonight’s dinner and tomorrow’s breakfast. This felt strangely vulnerable and I escaped self-consciously back out into the warmth of the evening.

My second day I kept driving south. In retrospect, I could have taken I-5 down to Tahoe that day. It would have taken longer, but I could have done it. However, I took a more direct route, on a patchwork of state highways and byways and roads that were merely roads. Much of it was through National Parks at the beginning, marked by the familiar wooden signs with yellow lettering. I stopped at a little espresso stand in Willamette National Forest for a coffee and the woman there called me sweetheart, which is almost as good as “welcome home.” My check engine light came on right before I crossed into California and I pulled over in what I knew would be one of the last towns for a long while, and a man at the auto shop kindly checked it for free, said I would be fine for now, and sent me on my way. 

From there on out it was vast valleys nestled in rocky ranges, sparse forest, and great shining, still mountain lakes, for hours and hours. My housemates and I had watched Nomadland the night before I left Vancouver and now I thought of it frequently. There was often not a shoulder to the road, rarely another car, and the sun continued hot, making heat waves on the pavement, a shimmering landscape of blue and green and black and grey and dusty orange. I ignored my back that ached from sitting, listened to an audiobook of Anne of Green Gables, stared at the miles of stunning wilderness, and cried harder than seemed reasonable when Matthew Cuthbert died. Signs warning that this was fire country flicked past me, and once I started, thinking there were flames rushing behind me, but it was only the bright yellow line of the road. I was more anxious than I realized. Between Eugene and Reno I went through maybe six towns in the course of about 400 miles. 

By dinner time I had come down the incline into the Lake Tahoe basin, my place of port for a few weeks. I had dinner with my granddad and his wife, then walked the few blocks back to the little family cabin off Ski Run where I’m staying. I took a bath, fell into bed, and wondered what I had done.

I’ll be in Tahoe till late June, then my brother will meet me and we’ll do the cross-country drive at a leisurely pace, staying with family most of the way. I’ll spend July mainly in Greensboro, and then after a friend’s wedding at the beginning of August, I’ll drive north to Madison, Wisconsin, where I’ll move into some friends’ basement, look for work that pays a decent wage so I can work on paying off loans, and settle in to finish revising this novel and looking for an agent in earnest. And that’s it, that’s the whole plan. I’m living very skint and a little rootless for the foreseeable. And I have only the vaguest idea of what comes after.

As I’ve concocted these plans over the last several months, I’ve been excited about them–they felt like freedom, like hope, like adventure. But my isolated drive through the remote, seemingly immeasurable Sierra wilderness had gotten deep under my skin. As I lay in bed I was afraid, very afraid that I was a fool. That the uncertain, blank canvas of the years ahead signaled that I was walking off a cliff. At root I hate not having a plan or being in control. It took me a very long time to fall asleep.

But the next day was better. It’s beautiful here. I step out onto the front porch and the air smells of warm, sunny pine. And South Lake Tahoe’s a resort town, so everyone (but everyone) is on vacation, in shorts and sundresses and crop tops and flip-flops, walking to the grocery store for pasta and cheap wine, wandering to the beach like there’s no timeline because there isn’t. The sand at the shore is coarse gold, not the fine, ethereal grey you find on the beaches of Vancouver. Every day has been sunny and soft.

So the last week has been gently livable. I’ve walked to the grocery store a few times myself, marching out in my sandals through dust and sun and sugar pine needles, and even to the lake once. I’ve jumped into revision plans for the novel, scribbling in all directions on sheets of paper ripped from my New Testament notebook, facing up to the number of characters I need to do justice to. I’ve watched Taskmaster and Grand Designs while eating grilled cheese sandwiches, and read bits of mystery novels as well as Spoon River Anthology.

The anxiety which surfaced on my lonely drive lives on, and so, in a related and equal way does the missing of my life and people in Vancouver. Both have been coming out in emotional bursts, like I have a release valve somewhere which I can turn off and on mainly as I please (anxiety and sadness on tap!) But just because they are voices I can hear does not mean they are the only ones. 

For my birthday, my sister gave me a copy of Adorning the Dark, Andrew Peterson’s book on creative vocation. It felt appropriate to read it now as the point of the next couple years of adventurous living is to lean into the writing, to try to make it actually happen. I’ve read a few chapters, and it’s been full of good reminders. “Follow the stars, not the flotsam,” he says. On Sunday, I went with my grandparents to a concert on the north side of the lake, up in Incline Village. As we drove along the eastern shore for nearly an hour, the wind had picked up, and I could not stop staring at the water. Hundreds of little whitecaps ducked and sped across the blue in the midday sun, so deeply, truly, richly blue, that it made you wonder whoever could have dreamed such a color, and not only dreamed it, but filled a whole lake with it.

So I will follow this for now, these pleasant lines in pleasant places.

Spring Talking

The other day the sun was out and I took a walk. I only got so far as crossing the street and then there were crowds of crocuses standing brazenly in the grass, as if they’d always been there and we’d all just forgot to look at them. They were the big purple kind which I’d never seen till I moved here and which always make me catch my breath. But they also made me think of the ones I grew up with, the sacred first sign of spring—small, delicate, and canary yellow—peeking up around the corners of the grey slate paving stones which lead up to my parents’ blue side porch.

Then I took myself all the way down Yew Street to Kits Beach.

The evening after I took that walk (or maybe it was the next evening altogether) I read two chapters of Wind in the Willows aloud to my housemates (the first and fifth because those are the best ones). I made it through Chapter Five without crying, but just barely. The little monologue in which Mole explains to Rat how he had wanted to stop and go back to see his little home, but his friend hadn’t listened to him, is really rather raw (more raw than last time I read it, at least). That “spirit of divine discontent and longing” that Kenneth Grahame talks about has come early for me this year.

I’m homesick. I’m homesick for America and for road trips and for new jeans and high heels and for friends’ couches and for Pilot Mountain and for fresh tacos and for laughter and quiet and Yeats’ bee-loud glade. I’m homesick for what was and for what’s next. I’m homesick for Lord-only-knows-what. 

Only the Lord may know for now, but when I do see it, like the crocuses, then I’m sure I’ll know it. I’ll be like Mole coming upon Rat’s little boat, Mole whose “whole heart went out to it at once, even though he did not yet fully understand its uses.” 

Home Nostalgia

I am halfway through a two-week-and-change long Christmas at home in the States, and probably predictably, I’ve been thinking about familiarity and nostalgia a lot.

Nostalgia has been a part of me all of my life. When we were little girls, my sister and I would lie awake in bed remembering details of trips and Christmases and classmates and cousins, so I was well-versed in this sort of wistfulness even before I was a teenager. Then in college, when I started this blog, I began to use nostalgia consciously and regularly in my writing, opening it reverently like a map, searching through the criss-crossed veins of my life for the little arrow that announced, “YOU ARE HERE.” And now I realize more and more that everywhere, but especially in my writing, nostalgia is simply part of the air I breathe. I approach all of my doings and beings as things I do remember, will remember, want to remember.

But even with all this careful remembering, things fall off the edge of consciousness at times, and when they are brought back to the center of my vision, I jump just a little. Even just over a week in, this visit has been full of familiarities I did not expect, things I did not realize I was homesick and starving for till I was in their midst. There’s the way my otherwise well-mannered family confidently talks over one another, sometimes all five of us at once (I wonder who we think is listening?), and there’s the bright sunshine-gold of the upstairs hallway in my childhood home, and then there’s simply the neighborhood I grew up in with all its sweet, porched houses and their thoughtful brickwork, bright, paned windows, and occasionally peeling trim. These houses look like they are loved or at least were loved once as opposed to many of the homes on the west side of Vancouver some of which look like the people who built them never even considered loving them at all.

But the thing which hit me with the largest, most pungent wave of nostalgia was the day after my cousin’s wedding in Houston when nearly thirty of my family crowded into the living room of my uncle’s AirBnB and sang Christmas carols out of the old books from my grandma’s house. As we always used to, we sat all over couches and the floor, leaning against arms of chairs and one another’s knees, and worked our way from the youngest person in the room to the oldest, each of us choosing a carol in turn. I think we nearly ran through the whole book. We sounded good, especially at the beginning before our voices got tired. No experience has ever felt as well-worn and comprehendable to me as that one, despite the fact that, with the exception of gentle teasings and confusions as we made our way through the age line-up, all our words were laced through with the mystery of the incarnation.

A few weeks ago, during a class discussion, a professor gloomily announced to us that nostalgia was “a hell of a drug.” I know what he was getting at, that it can act as an excuse for unhelpful or even destructive patterns, but it will come as no surprise that I’m sitting here now fully prepared to gently push back at some of the assumptions lying perhaps unexamined beneath that statement.

To believe that nostalgia is inherently dangerous because it lulls us asleep misses the point of nostalgia. The only nostalgia which does this is a nostalgia which idealizes its object, but the purpose of nostalgia, the reason I cling to it, the reason it fills so many songs and poems and Christmas ornaments, the reason it sticks to our ribs like it does, is that if we’re willing to look right through the beloved familiar with eyes wide open, nostalgia can wake us right up to what’s on the other side.

The reason I love the color of the upstairs hallway in my parents’ house is not only because it is bright, but because I chose it. One summer when I was in my late teens, I was left home alone for a week, and with high hopes for my productivity, my parents left me with the request that I would repaint the hallway. So I went to Home Depot, chose paint the color of sunshine, and spent three days rolling it onto textured puce walls that hadn’t been touched since the seventies. It took four coats, partly because of the vomitous color I was covering, but also because I kept painting secret messages for myself in large letters and then needing to cover them up fully. I giggled a lot. I remember feeling happy and independent and capable and full of promise. I am nostalgic about those walls not because I want to numb myself to adult life or be seventeen again (God forbid!) but because to me, they sing, they shout with hope and fresh life. And that’s a lesson I can stand to remember again and again.

Oh, give me the chance to do my very best.

Home from the Badlands

Yesterday, nine days after leaving North Carolina, my dad and I arrived in Vancouver with America splattered all over the front of my car.

We saw a lot of things–in fact I looked out the window a lot more than I did anything else–but my favorite was this: on Tuesday we came to the Badlands in western North Dakota, where for miles in every direction the earth has simply dropped out under itself, leaving behind thousands of craggy green and brown plateaus, all looking pensive as if they are contemplating their options and might someday sink down as well, turning the whole place into one great lush valley. But for now, and for all of human memory, we’re still in the in between–some land up, some land down, and the sky getting larger every mile.

We drove into Theodore Roosevelt National Park, through and around more and more formations of layered, crumbling earth, and saw fields and fields of anxious, soft little prairie dogs popping in and out of their burrows and finally came upon a herd of bison grazing. They stood calm and focused, some half-grown, but others large and ancient. Their winter coats, which were in the midst of shedding, hung off their flanks in great brown furls and dragged behind them like unintentionally august robes. We pulled over and rolled down the windows and a few came so close we could hear their jaws ripping at the grass beneath the still blue sky.

And as we rounded Highway 1 up into greater Vancouver yesterday the city flashed at me through the trees, a split-second, glittering wink, not to be repeated. Something quite deep within me jolted and I knew I loved it. Instead of dropping out beneath me, the road was rising up to meet my feet.