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.

Within Love

I’m a little hectic right now, though the Fall term hasn’t started yet: vaguely over-committed with just one too many writing projects, one too many side jobs, one too many email inboxes, one too many friends. Wait, no, that can’t be right—but I can’t find my spare car key right now. That’s the main thing. (No, no it’s not.)

Particularly when I feel like this, it is easy to forget. It is easy to forget the real main thing: to love the Lord your God. And when I realize I’ve forgotten—well, realizing somehow does not fix things. I say, Alright now, Alice, remedy the situation. Learn to love. Do it right, for God’s sake. And I come at the thing from the direction of my love instead of his, which is magnificently ineffective.

Then yesterday, I came across this in Lewis’ “Weight of Glory.” It was not a lightning-bolt, but instead a low, rumbling comfort, like thunder from the far side of the mountain.

How God thinks of us is not only more important, but infinitely more important. Indeed, how we think of Him is of no importance except in so far as it is related to how He thinks of us[…]to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son—it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.

So it is. And so I’ve been remembering (the proper, continual remedy for spiritual forgetfulness.) I’ve been remembering the taste of things. I wrote a series of poems for a course I took on food last Fall about how the memories which are inevitably tied to certain foods for each of us can serve as a gateway into the transcendent. Predictably, a year later, I am actually learning that lesson for myself. A few times in the last few months, I have tasted something and “Oh!” to myself. All simple things, sometimes absurdly simple: raw garlic, plain olive oil, okra fried in cornmeal. All tastes of my childhood, of a hot kitchen with shiny pitted floorboards, of something sizzling and something boiling and then my mother’s cold, laughing hands on the back of my neck just to make me jump. These things are particular to my sensibilities and my past, of course, but though yours may be different, we all have them. These are the tastes of love, and not just its outer rim either. These savory-sweet, dizzying flashes are from the inner core of love, the part we are rarely ever brave enough to acknowledge, the heavy part, the honeyed part, the realm of holy delight.

And though I so often forget, I’m certain: this place we are shy of talking or even thinking about, this buoyant golden heart of God’s love, is where we came from in the first place, our actual homeland, the place we belong even now. Funny thing, but so it is.

Classes start in a couple weeks, so things will fall into place soon enough. The car key will turn up. The sun is out and the sun makes things grow.

Learning Tears

I thought I would wait until I was in the right mood to write this one, but it has finally occurred to me that I wouldn’t know “the mood” if it marched into my room and smacked me up side the head. So here I am. Still full from lunch, in a little bit of a hurry, and writing.

I’ve always been a crier. I am not, on average, sadder than most, and I’ve certainly been given a very good life—the deeper parts of me are just constantly in touch with the surface parts, and that’s all there is to it. Many people who read this blog know that already. A close friend once told me cheerfully that she would be surprised to have a conversation of any great length with me in which I didn’t tear up at some point. I know I’ve found a true friend when I can begin to cry in their presence and absolutely nothing in their manner toward me changes. And as with any activity one participates in with frequency, I’ve tried to become good at crying. I mix tears liberally with self-effacing laughter, I almost never ruin my make-up, and I rarely sniffle.

But a change has come over my weeping in the last year or so. Perhaps it is the release of no longer teaching and needing to hold the feelings in all day, or the occasionally overwhelming changes wrought by my move to Vancouver, but ultimately I think it may be evidence of a more gut-level shift. Whatever the case, my tears are more and more often mixed nowadays. They are no longer merely sad or hurt or tired. There is often a piece of them, sometimes a sizable piece, which I might call awe. And several times in the last year, I can remember crying for joy.

I did not fully admit this change to myself until this summer, I think. In both of the classes I took earlier in the summer (on the Psalms and on George Herbert) I found myself moved to tears, spoken to, intruded upon by Love. I’m taking a class this week on the theology of desire and it will very probably happen again. The crying may get in the way of taking notes.

Tears have been a part of my rhythm of life for so long, but it never occurred to me that they could be part of learning, that they were complex or strong enough to bear connections not only to my own sticky inward minutiae, but to whole sunny shafts of the hope of glory. But, of course, it seems inappropriate, unseemly to cry during a lecture. Tears make others worried and uncomfortable. People so often feel pressure to do or console or fix. They are unlikely to understand my act of crying simply as evidence of my tuition dollars at work, that it means I am being educated. 

But I must rely on the well-practiced silence of my tears, and not allow myself to be waylaid or cowed by the potential concern of others. The tears which leave that tough, tangible residue on my cheekbones are busy teaching impossibilities, and often Gospel ones. They gather up and weave close the threads of things I once presumed to be far distant from each other: sadness and joy, discipline and gentleness, need and abundance, and my slow-beating heart and the God-made-man who came here, close enough to touch, and died for it.

Patience and Long Light

We are deep in July now, and I have been thinking about patience today.

Back when I was teaching, if you had asked any of my students to describe me, probably one of the first descriptors you would have heard from almost any one of them was that: patience. Once, on a Friday afternoon in Spring, a student asked me if I had ever yelled, and all his classmates fell into an earnest, curious silence waiting for me to answer. If I had a trademark, it was patience. There were upsides to this, certainly. Being told I was patient by the ones who struggled to write an introductory paragraph and needed slow, painstaking help, by the keyed-up, anxiety-ridden ones who were used to grating on the nerves of most adults they came into contact with, by the talkative ones, the attention-hungry performers, was a compliment. I never got upset, always had the time, and that was something they could rely on every day they set foot inside my class. But being told I was patient was often also an indictment, though usually a gentle one, and I knew it. Coming from some kids, the ones who did what they were asked the first time around, who came into my class having completed every page of the reading without fail, who opened their binders to that quarter’s scripture before the bell even rang and stood ready and waiting, it meant: You let too much slide, Miss Hodgkins. Some days, your patience does none of us justice.

So when I think of patience, I often think of it in that context: the way it operates for me as a double-sided coin: a gentleness to those around me, but also an excuse, an abdication of responsibility, an escape into passivity.

But today I have been coming at the thing from another angle. Because in some ways I am not patient, for good or for ill. This will reveal the deep veins of selfishness in me which adulthood has not rooted out in the least, but whenever there is something which really directly relates to me, to my own well-being and comfort and satisfaction, I am not patient at all. Summertime reminds me of this, without fail, in its awkward, unreliable rhythms and the way we all leave town and come back only to leave again, and this one has been a particularly good example. It has been my first summer in Vancouver and sunlight here comes before I wake and lasts well past dinner. The days not only move slowly, but sometimes, despite my busy-ness, they seem to sit still. When will the sun set? When will the balance between rest and action return? When will the heart beat properly again?

So with all my annual angst and impatient kicking against the goads which mostly no one can hear but myself (and a few lucky loved ones!), I thought today of a couple of things about patience which I hadn’t before.

First, I thought that perhaps I could get a better, deeper grasp on patience, really dig into up to my elbows, if I could stop thinking of it as a virtue intended for use in the love of others, but, as perhaps all virtues ought to be, as an entrance into wisdom, a way of learning old rhythms anew. I thought that if I waited long enough, if I were patient, there might be time for something to come from very far away. So the fruit of this patience today, while my late lunch slowly cooked, was found not in the eventually browned Italian sausages but in wandering out onto the sun-dazed patio and chewing absently on a fresh mint leaf, like we used to do as little girls in our North Carolina backyard when it was a wilderness and we played at adventure. I stood still instead of straining forward, and there, on my tongue, was a gift.

But more than that, and conversely, the other thing about patience I became convinced of today was this: patience needs an object. Though we may be called to stand in the sun, we are not really supposed to do so absently. We are supposed to direct our patience toward someone. When my old friend Hopkins began a sonnet way back when with, “Patience, hard thing!” he was not really talking about the patience I directed toward my students, that we are called to offer our friends and families and neighbors. He was talking about the kind of patience which I struggle to exercise when July rolls around, about the patience you use to quell the thing gnawing in your gut. But who, pray tell, is the object of that patience? To say that it’s our own selves veers too near the realm of patience as excuse and passivity. But if we are called to stand still in a given spot and be longsuffering there perhaps the object of our patience ought the be the One who does the calling. Indeed, he may well be the Object of all virtues, and they may only ever be complete virtues at all when directed towards Him. He is the maker and breaker of rhythms, the crusher of foes and life-breather of hearts, the one who separated the light from the dark in the first place.

He is patient. Patience fills                                                                                                               His crisp combs, and that comes those ways we know.

Promises

This entry is about two entirely separate things. Please do not try to draw any sort of philosophical, metaphysical, or, least of all, theological connection between the two. Failure to comply may result in misery and confusion. (Exceptions will, as always, be made for literary connections.) Thank you for your cooperation. 

Last week I took a class on the Psalms, and all week they felt very near. This is perhaps a bit inevitable when you listen to someone lecture on a single topic for six hours a day, five days in a row, but nevertheless, the intimacy of those ancient poems, even the ones I’d heard and read dozens and dozens of times before, was startling. Then, as I walked home from church the other night, past the large, still houses and moss-grown trees of Shaughnessy, I realized why that might be. 

I’ve always been hyper-conscious of my good fortune in terms of Christian community: I was born to parents who loved the Lord and displayed that well, and have spent literally the entirety of my life up to my neck in Christian education. I’ve always had more Godly potential role models than you can shake a stick at. Many people may assume that the danger of such a saturated environment might be complacency, or a resentment and restlessness that leads to rebellion, and that’s true for some. But I think that my problem, though I’m still overwhelmingly grateful for what I’ve been given, is that I was so aware of God’s grace towards and concern for the little and large worlds around me that I never, for more than isolated split seconds at a time, took a chance to comprehend His grace towards and concern for me.

But the Psalms blow all this out of the water. They’re full of thoughts of the community (and the nations at large), but they’re also brimming with the voices of individual psalmists claiming God’s promises for themselves–promises of justice, of salvation, of forgiveness, of wisdom, of provision, of mercy, and of righteous, shot-through-with-holy-light love, all for the poet and his singular heart. Not once, not twice, but probably dozens of times as I sat in room 100 last week I found myself thinking, “But has this always been true? Has it always been possible to be alone in a room with God in this way without a chorus of other voices? Has Psalm 103 always had those words in it–confidently declaring that he knows us and understands our human dustliness? Has Psalm 139 always announced with such great firmness that the God of the universe holds the author in His own right hand? And why does this make me weep? Has He promised something to me as well?”

But now for something completely different.

Yesterday, for no particularly constructive reason, I thought through my whole history as a writer. What sorts of things I’ve written at various periods in my life and what I learned about writing as I went. For the first four or five years that I wrote, from the ages of about thirteen to seventeen, while I cared that I was good, I didn’t really care about getting better, perhaps because, with some teenage combination of naivete and arrogance, I didn’t know that was possible. And strangely, I find myself enormously grateful for that, because in those formative years I was motivated only by the joy of the thing. In the years since, as I’ve encountered my own limitations and struggled to stretch beyond them, that joy of the thing has perpetually hovered in the periphery of my vision. I have never once ceased to see words as friends. Thus they began, and thus they will remain.

They are my friends even now in graduate school as I have been tying myself in little mental knots trying to prematurely decide on a direction for my final creative project. And, as often happens, I’ve landed back where I began. I’m going to write a novel, a story which is at gut-level far more important to me than the one I wrote as my honors project at Grove City. 

I have a (very new) theory, that when you get a good idea for a piece of fiction, to help it come to fruition you have to hover over it like an egg that needs a mother or a warm incubator to hatch. You trust the mysterious natural process, and eventually something living will burst forth. And as of last week I have an idea, an idea that I’m fairly certain of, so from here on out if you’re trying to find me I’ll be busy hovering. If I am patient and keep a steady hand, one day there will be words on a page to show for it. And that’s a promise.