Real Life

These times we’re living in feel loomingly significant and deafeningly heavy. We repeat this to each other so solemnly, over and over, and I’m sure it’s true. Yet so many little human oddities carry on not above the fray, but beneath it: lives, deaths, wrong turns, wet rain boots, dog-eared pages, uncontrollable, hiccuping laughter.

When I took the job at the care home this summer it was partly, of course, because I needed work, but also because I had a hunch that I’d get to spend my days there inundated by human reality. I suspected that nothing there didn’t matter. And I was right, I think. For a place in which, by definition, everyone was pretty obviously dying, it was so full of life.

My first day, practically before I stepped through the front doors of the place I was informed of the current crisis: the cat was missing. He was named after a tropical fruit (as apparently all cats should be) and in his adventuring outside the bounds of the property had been rescued by a too-good Samaritan and brought all the way to the SPCA across town, from which he now needed to be retrieved. Operations were thrown into chaos by this development.

Sometimes I entertain myself by imagining a series I could one day write based on my time in that place. It would be a series not of blogs or short stories, but of children’s chapter books reminiscent somehow of both Junie B. Jones and The Boxcar Children. It could include Charles and the Email He Wanted Me to Send about the Denture Cream and Ice Cream Social: Why Even Bother with Flavors Other Than Butterscotch? as well as Marilyn Thinks Her Daughter Has Stolen Her Ring, Vol 17, Part 3, and the particularly well-beloved It’s Two O’Clock and Walter Is Asking How Long Till Supper! But even such illustrious works as these could not do justice to all the tiny moving pieces.

Most of the things that mattered there, that were funny or sad or both, like most things that matter everywhere, were just so small. They were moments and ends and bits that just seemed to fit in the palm of your hand.

There was Jean, who spent everyday in the lobby with a resting facial expression halfway between a grimace and wink, who couldn’t ever seem to control her decibel level, and who could often be overheard making woeful pronouncements such as “I’m so old. I never thought I’d see you again,” or “It’s awful having to go to the toilet all the time!” 

Or there was Doreen, well under five feet tall, who giggled with mischief and threatened to punch you as a sign of affection.

Rose, who wouldn’t leave her room to see her daughter till she found out she’d brought lipstick.

James, who always wore a helmet, calling out earnestly to me once down the hallway: “Are you married? You’re tall like me!”

Or Aileen, with whom I had a daily conversation about our matching brown eyes and how we liked them.

John, who would inch down the hall clinging to his walker and his quiet dignity while I followed behind holding his oversized sweatpants up for him.

Or Sophia, who once responded to my “See you later,” by clutching my hand and asking urgently, “Why later? Why not sooner?”

Of course there was the incomparable Barbara with her sharp sense of humor and room piled full of papers and books and projects, who once suspiciously asked me if I was warm enough. When I promised her that I was, she pinched my shirt between her thumb and forefinger, exclaimed, “Thick, my arse!” and immediately began to remove her own sweater to donate to my cause.

And there was Ruby with her careful up-do and red lipstick who told me firmly one morning from her bed, “They blame it on me because they think that I’m old. And it’s true I’m very, very old. But I’m not very, very stupid.”

Much of the above is straight from my memory, but much of it is also from notes I made in real time in my journal during my shifts. One day I wrote down a quote, but something must have demanded my attention because I left it unattributed, and I have no recollection now of the circumstances. “Don’t cry. Don’t cry,” it says. I suspect it was during a family visit, but I could not for the life of me tell you whether it was a parent speaking to a child or a child speaking to a parent. But it was life, the realest of life, either way. 

One family visit I oversaw ended with tiny Lamberta tearfully hugging her own arms because she could not embrace her daughter and repeating, “Te quiero mucho, mucho, mucho, mucho. Te quiero mucho!” So if we watch, in the end it’s the littlest bits of grit and glory that make up the whole foundation of our long lives, no matter what storm rages over our heads.

Things I Google When I Write

Over the last few weeks, as I’ve been finishing up the last few chapters of my novel draft, I’ve conducted a bit of an experiment. Years ago I noticed that I need to have wifi when I write because I need to have Google. I’m constantly fact-checking, looking up images to help me with descriptions, and using the internet as an all-purpose thesaurus. (Any word I type into the search bar now, Google immediately suggests I follow up with “synonym.” It’s done that for years. It knows me.)

So just for my own entertainment (and now yours!) I’ve been keeping a little log of every odd thing I find myself looking up just so I can finish the sentence at hand. This list below has absolutely been edited for brevity: it’s about half of its original length and the vast majority of what I cut was just me searching for synonyms of everyday adjectives like “angry” or “large.”

The point is, if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to write a novel, here you go, enjoy. There’s a good chance it’s both weirder and duller than you ever imagined.

Week One

learned helplessness ᷸ tree nymph ᷸ I saw you lying in your own blood ᷸ Ezekiel 16 ᷸ Toyota Camry 2010 ᷸ ten reasons why ᷸ Netflix shows spring 2018 ᷸ Cookout milkshakes ᷸ pedestrian ᷸ hieratic ᷸ when do you need to start mowing your lawn each year ᷸ Jonah and the whale ᷸ Reilly ᷸ strikethrough on google docs ᷸ Hard Times ᷸ high school economics textbook pdf ᷸ NCDMV wildflowers ᷸ phoenix plural ᷸ semiannual ᷸ biannual ᷸ what’s the word for once every two years ᷸ performance venues in london

Week Two

Prace ᷸ April calendar 2018 ᷸ popular insults ᷸ Victoria and Albert tattoos ᷸ Victoria and Albert museum tattoos nearby ᷸ Albert Memorial to gold tattoos ᷸ Phil Robertson ᷸ Bill Robertson ᷸ ruefully ᷸ national youth choir ᷸ famous people with curly hair ᷸ most expensive dog ᷸ Madrigal ᷸ teenage girl bible study handouts ᷸ Hyde Park ᷸ map of where they say sneakers ᷸ 15 times 8 ᷸ 90/15 ᷸ Millie Bobby Brown

Week Three

TSA ᷸ soap bible study acronym ᷸ roll ᷸ benaline ᷸ kensington gardens london carriage ᷸ Museum of torture London ᷸ latte/espresso machine ᷸ does matte lipstick have a smell ᷸ Abide with Me ᷸ Psalm 49 ᷸ towels for babies ᷸ Optinos ᷸ dress circle ᷸ he never failed me yet history ᷸ Altoids ᷸ he never failed me yet lyrics ᷸ Borough market ᷸ Golden benchmark

Week Four

Consortium ᷸ Thank you for giving to the lord ᷸ Baby names 2009 ᷸ smelliest sandwich ᷸ Let us die to make men free ᷸ what does it take for a building to be condemned ᷸ what is larry ᷸ rain falls on the just and the unjust ᷸ Character awards ᷸ Home depot locations ᷸ end of year slideshow soundtrack ᷸ width of a gymnasium ᷸ Voyeur ᷸ forest fire before and after pictures

A Few Things I’ve Needed to Hear Lately

-Most days you will wake up angry and sad. You will be angry about a sickness which we cannot see or, even months in, seem to understand as it creeps between us. You will be angry about the fear which now ripples beneath everyone’s skin and will continue to for a long time. You will be angry that you can’t be home in sticky North Carolina heat this summer, even for a week. You will be angry that you can’t hug your friends. You will be angry about the price of cheese. You will be angry that you need to put away your laundry. You will be angry that the sun is out. 

It will be tempting to try to fix this anger, but you can’t. It will keep happening nearly every morning. What you can do is sit on the floor, which is oddly comforting. You can have a cry and put away the laundry. The sunshine will seem more friendly by midday. Buy the cheese anyway.

 

-The presence of the people you can be with physically and the effort of talking with the people you can’t is not just some time-filler or coping mechanism. Even when conversations are marked by uncertainty and anxiety and vague fatigue, there is something lasting building at their core, some kind of tough relational metal which can only be forged in circumstances of earnest, shared precariousness. These persistent conversations and interactions have more goodness than you know hidden in their quiet, circuitous frustrations.

Really, you and the people around you, the people you care about, have been given specifically to one another in this moment. So watch out for them, cheer for them, be patient with them. And when you fall down on the job, get up and try again tomorrow. It will be okay.

 

-Slow down. Breathe the good air. Listen to rain on the roof when it comes. Let that be your only plan sometimes. One truth this experience is obstinately handing to many of us, over and over, is our own creatureliness. We cannot have it all or do it all, we cannot set up the perfect system for our worldwide operations or even for our own daily life that will protect us from human frailty. We are severely limited. In fact, we are utterly dependent on those around us, and, more than that, on the Maker who breathed and loved us into being. 

And that’s unabashedly good news. Sure, the fear crawls beneath your skin, you keep waking up angry, and you’re almost always tired when you hang up the phone, but you are the precious child, the needy child, of a Creator who delights to be needed, who made this world not for you conform to it or conquer it or shrink from it, but that you might abide in and with the fruits of his labor and his joy. So go ahead, kiddo, be small today.

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.

An Open Letter to My Students

Dear Kids, Past and Present,

I started making notes for this letter in January of 2017, when I was first thinking seriously about leaving for grad school. So I’ve had a year and a half to work on it and there’s no excuse, but I’m still at a bit of a loss. Over and over throughout the past four years, with increasing frequency, you have broken my little heart and then mended it with your own unrestrained laughter and sincerity. I am tired, but somehow bigger, for it.

I have sometimes told people that if I’d known how hard teaching was going to be, I never would have done it. But I’m grateful I didn’t know. I’m grateful I went in blind, not fully comprehending that I would be teaching people, 317 young, mutable, full-of-life people, who would walk into my classroom and sit in front of me, bearing the image of God in bright colors, even on the days you were least aware of it and most resistant to it.

Here are the things I never told you (or didn’t tell you enough):

-Your value is immeasurable. But though it’s immeasurable, it is weighty. Sometimes when I am teaching, I feel it. Especially when you are quiet. I have sometimes simply stopped and sat still so I could listen as you worked. (I wrote a poem about this once. It’s called “An Ode to My Students’ Silence.”)

-I almost always took a stack of tests home with me over Christmas break, because I knew I would miss you, and seeing your handwriting would help.

-The greatest gift you have given me is joy. Your moods, of course, were not always consistent, but I have lost count of the days when your affection and energy overwhelmed me, when your effervescence dragged me out of some little slough of despond and made me grateful. You are funny when you mean to be and funny when you don’t.

-Earlier this year, Mrs. Johnson gave me a plant, and a week or two after setting it on the windowsill of my classroom, I noticed that someone had ripped one of the wide, flat leaves down the middle, but then done the due-diligence of fixing it back up with scotch tape. Every time I saw it I laughed, but I also found it weirdly moving, because this is all I have ever wanted from any of you: to take responsibility for your actions, to do your best with the resources that you have.

-Some of you never liked school: not in first grade, not now. That’s okay. Go to trade school, work with your hands, make good things well. This is far more important than most people are willing to admit.

-Your life does not begin when you turn eighteen, or when you go to college, or when you get your first real job. It is already going on and has been for some time. Your life is the here and the now. So, as Gandalf says, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

-Teaching you has humbled me, and taught me about love.

I love you, and I will continue to pray for you.

Miss Hodgkins

 

Thoughts from This Christmastime

I know that it is time to write here because it has been more than a month since I wrote here last. That is reason enough in itself. If we pile on the significant facts that it is almost Christmas, and that I am, for the time being, off of work, the argument that I should sit down and write a blog entry becomes very, very convincing.

So at about noon, I opened a document and fussed around with all the phrases that have been running around my brain for the last few weeks, but none of them seemed to have much to say for themselves. They were tired, like I am. And then I started googling “Christmas writing prompts,” hoping the internet would save me. After a few abysmal minutes of that, I gave up and have spent about a quarter of an hour staring at the screen, wondering why the often-confident voice in my head is so quiet.

Perhaps it’s because I’m meant to listen for now.

I am meant to listen to the clock ticking.

I am meant to listen to the front door of my building squeak as my neighbor goes in and out.

I am meant to listen to the poetry read aloud.

I am meant to listen to the hiss and bubble of the chili in my crockpot when I stir it.

I am meant to listen when George Bailey shouts in exultation, “My mouth’s bleeding, Bert! My mouth’s bleeding!”

I am meant to listen to the sound of my sock feet padding on the wood floor.

And I am meant to listen to the heavenly refrain that’s been repeating my head, soft and sleepy, like waves on the shore, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests!”

 

A Brief Come-to-Jesus Meeting with Myself

Just so you know, previous titles of this entry have included “The Very Great Difficulty of Living in Grace” and “Gifts.” It has been sitting in my drive in a half-finished, bits-and-pieces state for a couple weeks now. Every time I come back and fiddle with it, I end up cutting more of it. So now I am just going to tell you (and myself) some things I really need to hear, because maybe you need to hear them too.

There is nothing I can break that my God cannot fix and better. He makes crooked places straight.

In every way that I fall short, he does not. The overblown catalog I have taken to keeping of my failings is, conversely, a list of all the things he is not and never will be. He fills every lack perfectly. So I don’t have to. But if I let him, he will make me holy like him. And that’s a promise.

I am a child of a Father who runs to meet me as I emerge from the slops of the pigs. Who am I not to have hope?

Jesus’ love is for me. I wrote that on here a while back, but now I have something to add: I am for it. I am meant for it, made for it. My very first priority is simply to allow his love to surround me, to exist within it. If I am really doing this, abiding in him, then of course I will be bearing witness to his love and showing it forth to the people around me. Of course.

If I am abiding in him, I am doing enough for today.

You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:                                                                               So I did sit and eat.

Things I Hope I’ve Learned by Now

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

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

Buy yourself flowers whenever you please.

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

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

Notice when the sun comes out.

Stock up on spices.

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

Thank your parents often.

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

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

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

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

Be decisive. It will make you feel good.

Change your oil regularly.

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

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

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

How to Have a Snow Day (Parts I, II, III, and, apparently, IV)

-Be teacher during midterm exam week.

-Receive expected text cancelling Friday while watching movie with roommate.

-Rejoice.

-Relax.

 

Part I: Friday

-Sleep in.

-Smile at snow outside of window.

-Consider actually enjoying snow for once.

-Begin to layer winter clothing.

-Discover heavy boots are MIA.

-Continue to layer winter clothing to make up for deficit of decent boots.

-Gather phone, keys, phone charger, glasses, and similarly layered roommate.

-Realize am probably wearing enough clothing and equipment to go into battle as snow warrior.

-Feel invincible.

-Venture into white, sleety world.

-Climb (small) snowy mountains.

-Arrive at parents’ house.

-Make too-salty cookies.

-Read Wall Street Journal weekend section.

-Revel in Wall Street Journal weekend section.

-Play seven games of Solitaire on floor by wood stove.

-Win only one (by dishonest means).

-Discover heavy boots in parents’ upstairs closet.

-Put on heavy boots and consider possibility of actually becoming snow warrior.

-Ask very nice father for ride home.

-Once home, tromp across street to neighbor-friends’.

-Eat curry.

-Discuss unfortunate bodily functions as well as city council.

-Watch X-Files on squished couch and cover eyes to protect self from aliens.

-Laugh with roommate at people who have cabin fever.

-Make more hot chocolate mix.

 

Part II: Saturday

-Take hot bath.

-Talk to sister on other side of ocean.

-Marvel at ability to speak to sister on other side of ocean.

-Marvel at possibility of sister’s holiday to Netherlands.

-Enjoy marvelling.

-Layer items of winter clothing.

-Put on heavy boots.

-Rejoice in new freedom endowed by heavy boots and also own potential as snow warrior.

-March out alone toward local grocery store to buy supplies for tomato soup and grilled cheese.

-Walk in middle of street because if not now when.

-Become very warm from snow-aerobics (i.e. walking).

-Desperately remove items of winter clothing.

-Wisely decide against removing boots.

-Encounter happy walking couples, happy playing children, happy bundled houses, and angry driver who reproachfully waves self out of road.

-Decide snow turns entire world into Mayberry.

-Become caught up in joy and self-revelation.

-Decide to write blog entry about new person snow has made self to be.

-Arrive home full of good will and with groceries.

-Do yoga to calm rapidity of beating heart from snow-related epiphanies.

-Make pasta (not tomato soup and grilled cheese).

-Listen to Hamilton at behest of sister.

-Stare glowy eyed at computer for hours reading lyrics.

-Imagine Lin-Manuel Miranda writing brilliant things.

-Imagine self writing brilliant things.

-Consider writing blog entry.

-Consider doing laundry.

-Instead, watch angsty indie love movie in dark room.

-Make not-as-salty cookies.

-Learn to play Dominion.

-Lose.

 

Part III: Sunday

-Take too-cold bath.

-Walk to parents’ house.

-Play Scrabble and beat parents (though not brother).

-Ignore fact that parents had Very Bad tiles.

-Eat blueberry coffee cake.

-Play Trivial Pursuit.

-Lose.

-Eat pasta.

-Discover afternoon church is cancelled.

-Read Bible and sing hymns with family instead.

-Consider possibility of Monday school cancellation.

-Dismiss possibility as heresy.

-Walk to local coffee shop to meet roommate.

-Carry on long conversation with roommate and brother mocking others’ inability to drive in snow.

-Play Dominion again.

-Lose again.

-Clean off car and successfully run short errand in it.

-Feel smug and also relieved about driving ability.

-Receive woeful text cancelling Monday.

-Imagine students at home stewing in pots of own exam stress.

-Imagine self, on distant-future-day-when-school-resumes, being doused with said exam stress.

-Stew in pot of future-stress-related stress.

-Grieve.

-Decide no one in weather-weary world wants to read snow-related blog entry.

-Realize self does not want to write said blog entry because self never wants to write lately anyway.

-Answer emails like a grump.

-Eat dinner cooked by nice roommate who makes food pretty.

-Decide even weather-weary world should not miss out on extreme cleverness and wit.

-Begin to draft cleverness and wit.

 

Part IV: Monday

-Wake up to sound of roommate heading off to work.

-Feel wistful.

-Watch Downton.

-Make make ambitiously grocery list including four kinds of cheese.

-Put on clothes and also hat and snow warrior boots.

-Venture.

-Discover main roads are clearer than clear.

-Wish main roads were not clearer than clear so would have excuse to avoid big stores full of tired people and school-aged children.

-Spend slightly too much money on food, mostly unnecessary but delicious prosciutto.

-Arrive home in relief.

-Make self hot chocolate as reward for conquering real world as snow warrior.

-Consider the remote possibility of snow day Part V.

-Dismiss potential Part V as heresy.

-Receive email with school schedule for tomorrow.

-Realize snow day Part V actually is heretical and false and definitively not happening.

-Have mixed feelings.

-Smile at remaining snow outside of window.

-Consider becoming sentimental.

-Decide instead to go ahead and start dinner.