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.

Advent Poem

I went for a walk after dark just now. (Everything’s after dark these days.) On some quiet, straight street in Kerrisdale, I realized I was nursing a bit of a broken heart. Not because of anything in particular, just one of those cracks in yourself that sometimes makes itself loud and painful for an hour or a day before receding back into silence.

I told God about my little broken heart and then stomped along for another twenty minutes or so, wondering why he didn’t do anything about it. I pulled my coat around me tight even though it wasn’t that cold.

I came to a turn where the ridge of the neighborhood dropped away before me so that all the lights of downtown glittered there. I didn’t find it as beautiful as I knew I should have. I passed a Christmas tree sale, smelled Douglas fir, and was annoyed. I thought of the list of poems I’d put together for Advent and rolled my eyes at my own eager efforts. 

Then I wondered what if, just for now, I stopped trying to sort through all this peripheral beauty—the lights and the trees and the words and the colors. I was clearly too much of a philistine for all that tonight anyway. What if I just let Advent itself be the poem?

I stopped halfway down the hill. I stood still and looked out over the city again. My vision softened. I waited. 

The poem then was this: God sees that everything’s dark these days, and the Son says, Shall I go? Shall I go and live and die there? God says, Yes. So the Son shows up not in a chariot, but in a womb, is born a human baby to a wide-eyed mother and her wide-eyed Joseph. He grows up into a God-man who is good to his word: he lives and he dies and then, quite overwhelmingly, he lives again. The Son ascends back up to heaven at the end of the poem, but his coming has left every beacon burning behind him.

So if Advent is the poem, I thought, standing on the sidewalk, then we can look out over the dark landscape and see every hill ablaze with holy hope. We can run wide-eyed to those tongues of promise-fire, holding out the largeness and the smallness of our mangled, poorly-pasted hearts, and say, You’ll take this? Even this? And no matter how often we, like anxious children, repeat the question, the steadfast Advent poem will always say, Yes.

Manna and the Dreamers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I ride the bus some days.

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

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

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

Selfish Art

I’ve just got back from a walk in the rain—real rain, not Vancouver’s usual lazy drizzling nonsense. I am damp and happy. I am happy about the wet rivulets which poured off of my umbrella, and I am happy about the squishing sound my boots made in the grassy mud as I crossed the school field. 

I am also two-thirds of the way through a first novel draft. It’s been a push. It feels like work, because it is work. And yet. I’ve been reminded lately that it’s going to be worth it. It’s going to be worth it because when I’m finished, I get to read it. I can talk all day long about writing as communication to others, as taking the pictures and ideas and worlds inside my head and putting them in someone else’s using only the magic of words on a page, and I believe in all that, I do. But ultimately, in the moment, in the midst of the act of creation, I am nearly always writing for myself.

I create to respond to the truth and beauty I see, to call to it across the void, to expand upon it with words, not primarily so that others can understand it, but so that I can. I’ve written here before about how when I reread my own work, I often find that I’m preaching to myself, particularly if I’m coming back to it after some time. I only really know my own process, of course, but  if I had to guess, I’d say most art that is actually worthwhile is made with this self-guided focus, because such singularity of purpose is able to fully serve the art itself, and treat the outside audience as a peripheral, secondary concern. When you are in the midst of making, the fact that others may get to enjoy what you’ve made is just a happy byproduct. In that instant, you need no audience but yourself.

To consult your own instincts and pleasure so centrally as you create seems like a foolishly selfish approach, and I would be tempted to dismiss it as that, except that this is exactly how God created. He made a world and a people diverse, interesting, strange, and beautiful not because this was correct or necessary but because he knew that to do so was good. Really, I suspect he made his creation good partially just so that he could have the joyful experience of calling it so, over and over. In Orthodoxy, Chesterton imagines that every day when the sun rises, God claps his hands and cries, “Do it again! Do it again!” No one takes more delight in his own art than God.

So I will allow myself to be happy about my own words on a page in the same way I am happy about a long-awaited sloppy rain, because I can receive them and because they are good. A couple months after moving to Vancouver I wrote a little note for myself and put it on my wall. I no longer have any idea what it was originally in response to, and I sometimes forget about it for weeks at a time, but every time I do reread it, it feels more necessarily true than the time before. 

It says, You no longer need to be your own maker and taskmaster. Jesus has stepped in. You are free of the tyranny of self. The Lord has an infinitely better plan, and, moreover, he is gracious. Your only call is to wrap his gifts in rejoicing and offer them back.

Grieving Normalcy

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

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

Tonight, here, I am grieving.

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

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

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

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

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.

2019 Retrospective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And though the last lights off the black West went

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

Seer and Seen

I have been working in little fits and starts and pokes over the last week or so on an entry about God’s gentleness, and how it has been especially evident to me in this season of my life, but it has occurred to me that just recently, I have not necessarily been behaving gentle myself or as if I believe God is gentle with me. So perhaps if I were to post that a few people in my life might feel it was tinged with hypocrisy… Thus there has been a change of plans. Instead I am going to tell you about something which seems to me simpler, but just as true, and just as difficult to believe.

For the last few days I have been fiddling around with a little what-could-one-day-be-a-poem. If it were ever to be born properly, it would be called “Seer,” but I don’t think it will ever emerge into the light of any one else’s eyes, because I think Luci Shaw has already written it several times over. Instead, I will just tell you here what it was wanting to say: God is much more busy seeing me than I usually give him credit for.

He is seeing me when I leave half-finished blog entries and poems scattered at my feet.

He is seeing the cinnamon I put in my oatmeal.

He is seeing me parking my car in the same spot every weekday.

He is seeing me run my fingers along the top of the circulation desk at the library as I move to help a waiting patron.

He is seeing me arrange books in leaning piles on my bed to write first one paper then another.

He is seeing me sitting on the floor of the entryway of my house talking to my mother on the phone.

He is seeing me shuffling through old fall leaves which I hope will not stick to my boots.

He is seeing me remind myself about dinner.

He is seeing me drive late past the huge glowing Christmas tree on Valley.

He is seeing me lose track of the conversation my friends are having and look instead out the window into the dark.

He is seeing me going through the familiar motions of digging for words and setting them up next to each other, teaching them to be friends.

He is seeing me fall asleep, later than I should, curled tight into a comfortered ball.

He is seeing me.

He is seeing.

And—if I may end where I began—he is gentle.

A Resuscitation of Pity

I’m very pleased with the above title, but what I have to say may not live up to it at all. There is a chance that I am too tired to write. My life here overflows with good things: with picture books and friends and half-full bottles of wine, as well as hurricanes of blue-grey sky, neon-bright autumn leaves, and flashcards about ancient eastern monastics. I have capacity for little else right now, least of all the ability to be particularly coherent in writing, but I do have something to say. So I will try.

I’ve been thinking about pity, and how we’ve given it a bad rap. To be the object of someone else’s pity, we think, is clearly a fate worse than death. If someone pities us then they have put us down, called us unable, relegated us to something second class in the structure of the relationship or community. And so, for our part, when we (Lord help us) “feel sorry for” someone, we try as hard as we darn well can not to show it, because that would be rude. It would be rude to expose another’s need, rude to let it slip that we care. 

We don’t want to offer help and make it seem that we think we’re better than them, forgetting that just last week we ourselves were too tired to button our shirt straight or emerged from the bathroom with a face puffy from crying and next week we may be tasked with a job which is more than we can handle or realize we don’t have money to make rent. We forget the thing about pity which blows this perceived haves-and-have-nots structure out of the water: we forget the reciprocity of it all, a reciprocity in which there is commonality and connection. Any of us can extend pity and any of us may find, at any moment, that we need it.

But more than that, I am quietly becoming convinced that pity—this nearly innate response to the awkwardnesses and great open wounds in other people, wounds which can fester and even stink—is an essential piece of every love actually worthy of the name. It is the thing which teaches us to hold our tongue or to speak up when we would not otherwise be able, to make the pot of soup or to say yes at a moment when it wouldn’t occur to us. Pity is the thing which makes us want to hold a baby.

In fact, pity strikes very near the core of nearly all good things. If we cannot accept the every day garden-variety pity we find directed towards us, the human hearts aching and human hands reaching feebly out on our behalf, how can we possibly encounter the weeping, bleeding heart of God? If we deny pity its chance to act upon us, we deny the One who breathed life into us in the first place.

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.