Acorns and Where I’m At

Fall break is over and I spent most of its four sunny days curled in various corners of my apartment as acorns from the trees above pattered onto my roof. The first time I heard the sound a couple weeks ago, it gave me pause. I wondered if something had fallen out of a cabinet or if it was raining or if someone was unlocking my back door or if the world was ending. Any option seemed plausible. But no, it was just acorns, cascading down like manna. 

I’ve felt tenuous the last few days, crying easily. So I’m going to scrape out the corners of my heart onto this page a bit and see if that helps. Bear witness if you’d like.

Last winter was very, very hard. I didn’t say so to many people, but it was. Sometime at the end of November (or maybe at the beginning of December?) life gave me one little nudge and I absolutely crumbled. For weeks and weeks I wept driving to work and back and listened to my heart thud in my ears as I tried to sleep each night. My thoughts were hostile, constant companions, barely letting prayer through their iron bars.

In March a kind friend convinced me to see a doctor, and slowly, like the sun coming up in the cold, I began to feel better. I got on medication and God was gracious in other ways as well. I am beginning to see how throughout the later spring and the summer he gave and he gave and he gave, lavishing healing on fields I had allowed to lie fallow for years. He writes strange and perfect stories.

I’m grateful for all that bounty, the relationships put right and bitterness turned sweet on my tongue. But in the last few days I’m beginning to understand that though he meant those good gifts—oh, he meant them as declarations of love and I must consume them as such—this healing was also a clearing of the decks. Because the humiliating pain which revealed itself by ripping through my gut in a streak of depression a year ago still lives, and it must be dealt with.

You probably have something like this yourself, the spot so tender you’ll calcify your heart to protect it, the thing you fear so much that you’ll build walls out of whatever is nearest at hand just to avoid looking it in the eye.

For me that thing is that many days I find it very hard to believe that Jesus loves me, that he finds value in me. I want to do the math, find the answer for how this could be, but when I figure the equation for myself, my own worth always works out to be nil. I’m baffled at how all his big promises and slow gentlenesses could possibly be intended for me. And often I end up sinking into little puddles of self-hatred rather than face the great salty waves of love.

So that’s me.

But like I said, the decks are clear now. That soft spot has been in the open air recently. At school I keep weeping in chapel programs meant for our teenagers, but which leave me frustrated and raw.

And the acorns keep falling, coming down in rivulets and storms onto all this churned-up, bare soil of my heart. The other day there was a great gust of wind while I sat in my big chair in my living room and they came pouring down for nearly a minute, as if all the acorns in the world had gathered in one tree to lavish themselves on my little house, a million and one declarations of love, demanding to be heard.

Anyway, the seasons are changing, softly, surely.

The Same But Also Different

I’ve been back home for about two months now. They’ve been some of the fastest and fullest months of my life. I was happy to be back and I am happy to be back, but the shine of it all has worn off a bit. I’m no longer turning to people who’ve lived here for decades and saying, “Did you know Greensboro had so many trees? It’s green here!” 

The discomfort of transition is settling in. I can identify the feeling, because I’ve dealt with it before—several times now. It starts in your gut and then if you don’t address it properly it leaks down through all your appendages till at last it comes spewing out of your extremities onto other people in the form of illogical irritability that no one in the room understands, least of all yourself. Best to avoid that.

At the heart of my transition-pains this time is the reality that everything around and within me is both deeply familiar and enormously strange, simultaneously entirely the same and completely different from before. So this is me addressing that. Properly.

Things That Are The Same:

-I’m living in the neighborhood I grew up in, the only neighborhood I’ve ever lived in in Greensboro.

-I’m teaching at Caldwell, the place my entire life in this town has centered around.

-My parents are still here growing their garden and reading their poems and inviting me over but requesting that I call before just dropping by.

-My Aldi is the same. I go on Friday afternoons just like I used to.

-My dear little Kia is still here. The time to replace it is fast approaching, but it’s seen so much of life.

-I’m at the same church I was at the year before I moved away, which is full of many, many familiar faces.

-I hang out with the same women on the weekends. We still plan girls’ night.

-Hanging Rock is still here, as is Cook Out and Krispy Kreme and the Goodwill on Battleground. All pillars of my adolescence. 

-And despite the passage of time, the little idealist who sometimes hopefully tap dances in my chest, who sketches out the biggest of dreams, is still alive and kicking.

Things That are Different, However:

-I’m living in my own place, all myself, and am fiercely interested in how the space is arranged.

-I sometimes worry now that I’ve become a cynic—something I think I’m still too young for.

-I’ve written a whole novel set in the place I’m working and sometimes I get the fictional world confused with the real one. Writing feels weightier.

-I schedule so many more phone dates now. (Because there are so many more far away people I love.)

-The clothes in my closet are 95% different (but, let’s be honest, the number of items is probably roughly the same.)

-My confidence level has risen, but so too has my guardedness.

-There are very few familiar faces from before in my classroom—there arose a generation that knew not Alice.

-Horse Pen Creek Road is four lanes now, which really threw me for a loop at first, but honestly, I’m four lanes now, so I guess I’m okay with it.

Basically, if you’re looking to pick my exact location out in all this messy paradox like I’m Where’s Waldo, you’ll find me balancing between the two extremes, same and different, laughing loudly and crying freely and sometimes just watching the quiet carnival of my life.

The Lines Love Comes By

A couple weeks ago I had a training course via zoom for teaching AP Lit. After it was over, I went out to my car barefoot with just my license and my keys and drove to my parents’ where I retrieved sandpaper, a stud-finder, and two containers of my mom’s gumbo. It was a warm, thick Carolina night, just the kind I’d missed deep in my bones for the last four years, and when I got home and climbed out of my car I could hear the rhythms of a drumset echoing through the trees. The sound came from a house I could not see, hands I did not know holding the sticks. I stood there for a few beats, listening, grasping the moment against my chest—as you do—my hands full of odds and ends and the gravel of the back drive biting into my soles. Then I went inside.

I’m happier to be back teaching than I knew I would be. I’m happy to have kids back in my classroom, I’m happy to be talking about books I love all day long, and to be doing it in a place which, despite the ebb and flow of time, is still very much home. Yet I can feel myself already sinking into the mire I often felt stuck in four years ago—the mire where my job is my whole existence. To have only my job as an outlet, even for just a month, feels as if I’m funneling my entire self through a few very small holes. I’m antsy. I need a place in my life where I can bust through a dam. 

Maybe I can blame it on that moment when I heard those drum beats coming through the woods. Maybe it was putting up a gallery wall in my hallway yesterday with all the pictures of my child self wrapping her arms around people I love. Maybe it was the sound of the kids next door screaming and laughing and the smell of woodsmoke as their parents burnt scraps from their deck remodel. Maybe it’s been a million different things at once.

In fact, I think a part of the reason I feel the need for a channel beyond teaching is because of the bounty of teaching itself. When students come into my classroom they bring a messy stew of energy with them—happy energy, angry energy, anxious energy, hopeful energy. And then I get up and I try to explain to them why Anglo-Saxon poetry runs soul deep or how the source of Jane Eyre’s self-worth is the gospel and that this is why she has the capacity to forgive the way she does, and I watch bewilderment and understanding flicker intermittently through their eyes. I’m consistently amazed at how close observation, when I am willing to make it habitual, generates deep, rooted love. I come home nearly every day all full up not only of my own feeling, but also theirs. 

So I am brimful and I need another place to toss my words out like lines. There is so much to say, and, unsurprisingly, writing is my first port of call.

But recently with writing, I haven’t been sure where to begin. In fact, about a week ago, I made a list of writing projects I could be working on and there were about eight of them, none standing out to me any more than the others. So I put aside the list with vague despair. And then as I was cleaning up my living room one night before a friend came over, I remembered what pulled me into my last novel not only at the beginning, but what kept tugging and tugging and led me all the way through to the end. I was writing to the point where Jesus showed up. The beginning of the story was a promise and I was writing my way toward the fulfillment. His love pulled me on and on.

This is what all those moments I’ve been momentarily clutching to my chest have in common. Those pictures on my wall are a promise, the heady scent of wood smoke is a promise, the storms and sparks in my students’ eyes are a promise, and so, too, is that cadence of drums in the night air. They are all signs of goodness, declarations of God’s intention to fulfill what he has pronounced.

So as I stood there on the braided rug of my living room, three books tucked under my arm to shelve and a glass to put in the sink, I knew. I knew at once that I need to pick the project with that promise at its heart. I need to pick the thing that will have me write my way along some winding path to incarnate hope. I need to toss my line out in the direction of Christ, over and over, so that he may grasp it, and draw me closer in.

So, without even looking back at my list, I know which line I’m tossing. And I’m very excited.

Good Yeast of Spirit

I’m finishing up a week at a writers’ retreat in a little town in Kentucky. There’s been a lot of bourbon and wine and a lot of lean-in-on-the-arm-of-your-chair-laughing conversations, a lot of tears and a lot of blue sky.

Yesterday we toured a distillery and one of the first places they took us was a room lined with vats each as big as my kitchen, all full of caramelly brown yeast eating away at the sugars in corn—bubbling, swirling froth. The tour guide invited us to reach down into one of them. The air above was warm with steam, but the liquid I brought to my mouth on my finger was cool and soft and sweet.  Some exchange of life was happening between the air and the liquor and I couldn’t understand it.

This evening I fly back to Greensboro and then on Wednesday I’ll be teaching again for the first time in four years. In four days there’ll be kids in my classroom and I’ll be back up front doing that writing-in-real-time thing of communicating to a live, volatile audience. It seems surreal.

Then I’ll come home at the end of each day to my new place that’s all my own, my place that has a sunny upstairs second bedroom. Soon I’ll get a bed for it and then I’ll be holding a place for others, a place with a chair and bed and two windows and boxes of books that have yet to be unpacked. All on a quiet street under the trees.

And a couple evenings a week when I come home—I’m saying this now so that somebody hears me—I will write, curled up in an alcove with a window. I may come back to more revisions on this novel, I may write some poetry, and I may take a stab at long-form creative non-fiction. In fact, I may try them all at once, switching from one to the next to the next because variety is good for the soul. It wakes you up.

The point is this. I’ve felt just about every way I possibly can about my writing in the past week, but the ultimate truth that has sifted down into my gut through all my tumult is that I must keep at it, even if I’m “planting the crop I will not live to harvest,” a crop stored in barrels for years to come. So I’ll gladly pay teaching the mental, emotional tax it demands, but I’ll also guard that home writing alcove ferociously. I’ll continue to sit down with a blank page and reach out a hand through the mist of words to the meaning. I won’t understand it, but some exchange of life will be happening.

Homing

My dad writes poems for birthdays, so I have a box full of cards with lines of rhythmic verse in his ballpoint pen. And I’m not sure if he knows this, because he doesn’t save copies for himself, but more than one of them from the last few years is called “Homing.” Apparently, for him, coming back home, finding my way from a distance, is one of the repeated themes of my life. 

He’s not wrong. As of yesterday, I’m back in Greensboro for good and all (at least as far as I know.) I’ll be teaching in a classroom down the hall from my old one and living in a place down the street from my parents. I know that many blessings have fallen into my lap, but despite my usual grandiose tendencies for meditating on place and space during a transition, that hasn’t seemed like the important thing. What’s seemed like the important thing, what I’ve been thinking about more than ever as I’ve moved, is just human relationship. 

Three times in the last couple months I’ve cried when saying goodbye. I never used to do this. I used to do my stoic midwestern roots proud and wave people off cheerfully and go on with my day. No longer. I’ve grown sentimental and gooey in my old age—tearing up and hugging extra tight, trying in vain to stuff down the unseemly rip of grief in my chest.

That’s one explanation at least, but as plausible as it is, I rather suspect the larger thing that’s happening is that I’m coming to understand what we all are to each other. I’m coming to understand that when you know someone for a long time or a short time or any time at all, the friction of the contact, of the bumping up against one another’s shell, wears away at the hard edges. And more quickly than we know, we carve out space in each other—I in you and you in me. We do this over and over, at every turn of our lives. 

Sometimes the process can be painful and sharp, but eventually—in the best relationships—these carved-out spaces become soft, welcoming, just the right shape. Eventually, each person you’ve been close to carries always with them a brief home for you to come to. Because even though they can be hard to access at times, these holes we wear into each other never really go away. And so the more people we meet, the more we love and are loved, the more we’re likely to end up walking around like Swiss cheese people, full of holes just the right shape for people out there who in turn bear the shape of home for us.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been mourning in those leavings, I think. I’ve been mourning those homes cleft in friends that they carry away with them as we part–the comfort and the goodness. But I don’t “grieve without hope.” I’m well-practiced at homing. I always find my way back.

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 the 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.