Thanksgiving Coming

I’m sitting in my bed (my favorite place for writing, no matter how I try to create another one) looking out the two large panes of my window, through which I can see bare trees and blue sky and the neighbor’s roof bathed in late afternoon sun.

Writing has been a struggle recently. The blog has not come easy because, though many things in my life have seemed good, not many things have seemed urgent, as if I must run and tell them right away. And as for the novel draft, in its final chapters it has become a millstone around my neck. I mean, that’s a dramatic metaphor, sure, but please believe me when I say that it’s been FAR too long since it’s had anyone else’s eyes on it. After this week, though, the draft will be finished and I will take seventeen big breaths in a row and start writing my pitch letter for agents. 

But the real drama of my life recently has been car trouble. My little silver Kia had already been in and out of the shop a couple weeks ago for an engine issue, and then the battery started dying on me. The second time it happened was this past Tuesday as I was leaving my client’s house in the evening after making her dinner. When the car wouldn’t start, I went back inside to ask her if she thought any of her neighbors could give me a jump.

After she had made about four phone calls (one of which was to her son, who lives twenty minutes away), and had also offered to let me just take her car (I told her “No, Bonnie”), and three different people had asked if I had AAA, and various neighbors, roused from their evenings, had run across the street to knock on more doors, I ended up with the help of two women: Paula, who’s a divorce lawyer, and Marilyn, whose husband Allen drives trucks for a living.

We huddled in the driveway under the floodlights and Marilyn gave Paula and me a thorough tutorial in how to jump a car. The Kia started and then immediately died again. So Marilyn gave me a ride all the way home to Fitchburg, and spent the drive telling me about her stroke a few years ago and about the paper route she used to do with her son and also giving me her husband’s number because he would be home on Saturday and could help. My car stayed in Bonnie’s driveway.

The next day I was off work. I called the shop about getting the car towed. And then, since Abby had a Bible study she wanted to go to, and Taylor was working, I watched Calvin. Our neighbor texted asking if we wanted a walk, so we set off towards the marsh with her and her baby, a folding stroller in tow, in case Cal’s little legs got tired. They did eventually. We went a ways. As I pushed him on the long path around the lake, he stared up at the tallest trees and commented occasionally on “the forest” while Sally and I chatted about moving to a place and how long you decide to stay there.

On Thursday I had a morning shift at Bonnie’s again, and I borrowed my housemates’ car. I took Bonnie to run some errands and when we arrived back at the house, I was helping her out of the car before pulling it into the garage, and Paula from next door (remember, the lawyer?) ran up and not so much requested as demanded that she be allowed to gift me a AAA membership. I said, yes, sure, of course, that was very kind of her.

The problem with my car turned out to just be a dead battery, not the alternator, thank God. It’s back with me now, safe, sound, and covered by AAA.

Some of this was stressful, sure, particularly the cost of repairs, but Abby and I were talking about it a little later, and I said, “You know, I chose this.” I meant that I could have made much different plans for this year. I could have gone back into teaching or some other job with a salary, I could be working from home doing freelance writing so that I’m not so dependent on a car, I could’ve even stayed in Vancouver where a car is hardly necessary. I had the luxury of choice, and I chose this.

I chose this, but I did not really understand the good I was choosing. I did not really understand the way I was laying myself bare to the generosity of the people around me: my friends and my boss and my mechanic and my neighbors and my clients and their neighbors. I did not really understand that in deciding to move to a new city in the wintry midwest and work twenty hours a week so I could write, I was choosing to accept the expansiveness of divine generosity. I was choosing the bright tightrope of God’s provision.

Scenes from Yesterday

Yesterday morning, my client Bonnie told me a story while she ate cheese and crackers for lunch. I think it was about her children’s babysitter in the sixties, or maybe about her own babysitter back in the forties. I can’t remember. She tells me a lot of stories. When she’d finished she looked over at me and said that it was funny, she’d forgotten all these stories for years and years, and now that she’s old she’s remembering them all the time. 

Then yesterday evening, Abby and Taylor put their kids to bed and went out for a late dinner at a sushi restaurant. I sat upstairs on the living room couch so I could hear if any little ones woke up—the simplest kind of babysitting. About a half hour before they got back, Eliza, who is almost five months, woke up and started fussing. I went in to check on her and found that merely offering her her paci made no difference, so I brought her out into the hallway where she wouldn’t disturb her brother, and rocked her back and forth and back and forth till she dropped off. For so many parents getting the baby back to sleep is a common, often exhausting, rhythm, but for me it was out of the ordinary. So I held her a little longer in the quiet hallway, rocking back and forth and back and forth as her eyes sunk deeper closed and she breathed loudly and evenly into my torso. Finally, I carried her back into the kids’ room. A room where children are asleep is somehow even quieter than if it were empty. Still rocking, I laid Eliza back in her crib, removing my hands from under her one at a time.

And yesterday afternoon, I had a short one hour shift to meet a new-to-me client who I’ll have tomorrow. Her name is Oma and her house smelled like it had been breathing its own stale air in for a while. She had stacks and stacks of newspapers on nearly every surface, I saw a few photo albums I wanted to open, and the caregiver who was there for the evening showed me the pitcher that she likes to fill up with pet food and toss out onto the little back patio for the critters—the birds and the squirrels and the raccoons and all. Then Oma sat on the couch and talked round and round to me for a good forty minutes, all about her first husband and her second husband, the narratives and even the characters bleeding together and swapping places every few minutes.

When I’m old, I suppose I’ll tell lots of stories. I’ll tell about hitting my brother with a car when I was seventeen, and I’ll tell about making friends with the girl in the apartment next door when I was twenty-five because I heard her crying and put a note under her door offering her wine, and I’ll tell about refusing to get out of the car at the Grand Canyon when I was twelve because it was “just a big hole in the ground.” I’ll tell those things. I already do.

But suspect I’ll also tell about yesterday.

Obvious Things

I’ve been in Madison for going-on-two months and I have yet to go downtown or eat at any restaurant beside Culver’s or explore anywhere at all really and I am so content.

I work three days a week, going to people’s homes and making their meals and sweeping their kitchen floors and sitting on their couches to chat and sometimes bringing them their medication. When I leave I always tell them the next time I’ll see them. On the days I don’t work, I write some, I look out the window, and in the evenings I watch TV and put my clothes on their hangers.

Since I’ve gotten here, I’ve been stepping softly and steadily. I’ve gained weight. Not much, but still—I’m embarrassingly delighted by it. My brown leather pencil skirt fits properly for the first time in years, though I don’t really have anywhere to wear it. And I’ve been reading, reading the books I’ve been dragging round for years without ever touching, reading for the joy of it.

I’ve found that here—and by here I am not sure if I mean this place or this season of life (perhaps both)—here I can accept my own slowness. I can move along at a plodding, dreamlike pace, contentment rising up in me like a tide, paying attention to obvious things, letting life be self-evident.    

And then sometimes when I am driving from one client’s home to another in the middle of the day, I find that I am crying. I have to retrace the path of my thoughts to pinpoint what it is I was thinking about that brought on the tears. It’s usually some hurt or fear from way deep down, sometimes from decades ago, that has decided that waters were safe and still enough to rise to the surface. That’s how it goes, I suppose. So each time I ride the little wave, then dry my eyes, get out of my car, and go into the next house.

Then, on Saturday night, on a sort-of country road outside Madison, three high school seniors were driving to pick up another friend when they were rear-ended. Their car swerved into the cornfield to their right, flipped over and burst into flames. They all died there, about 300 yards from one of their homes.

I drove by this grief four times in the course of a few hours yesterday, as I took a client to run errands. There was a big mound of flowers and gifts and small precious items and the whole area was marked off by huge orange barrels and watched over by a police car. Each time I went past, one or two teenagers would be standing there, just looking down the memorial, hands in pockets, faces strangely impassive and blank, as if feeling hadn’t reached them yet, but looking hard at the spot where it happened might heal the numbness. 

The last time I went by, around five pm, there was a larger group, nine or ten kids, huddled around the side of the road. But I saw out of the corner of my eye two or three of them had gone farther, had walked down into the great obvious gash in the cornfield, stepped deep into the curving wound as if to see death from inside. 

A part of me wanted to pull over and wait till they emerged, not get out of my car, but just sit and bear witness. I was already past by the time I’d thought it, though, onto my five-thirty appointment, carrying the image with me as a handful of aching memory, moving on with soft and steady steps.

The Encouragement of Memory

Since the beginning of June, all through hot, heavy summer and into this warm, welcome fall, I’ve been trying to do two things. I’ve been trying not to think about my life in Vancouver too much, and I’ve been trying to understand where I am now.

I’ve found myself in so many different places recently and with so many different people and doing so many different things. What I’ve written on here has been scattered and confused and so have I. I’m constantly thinking of all the moments and movements I could write about, but there are so very, very many of them, and I need to be able to explain them to myself before explaining them to any reader. 

Yet I cannot seem to find the narrative thread: it’s all fragments. There’s the pink sunset I can see from the back window of my client Bonnie’s house as her oxygen machine puffs rhythmically beside me in the yellow-linoleum kitchen. There’s the little church I’ve been visiting where everyone has been so very, very welcoming but I still feel more shy than is sensible. There’s the room I’ve settled into with all my things and books arranged just so for the first time since I can remember. There’s my housemates’ baby crying in the back bedroom so sturdily that we can hear both her actual voice and the sound of it coming through the monitor, her own wailing echo. There’s the tattered band-aid I regularly change out on my finger from a thrilling “workplace injury” I got a week and half ago and my impatience for it to heal. There’s prayer in the round at two different small groups I’ve visited. There’s the dip and roll of Wisconsin farmland as I drive to a client’s, the green and gold of the ripening soybeans. There is the great white wall of books and TV in the living room upstairs and the floor in front of it, usually covered in toddler and baby and toys. There’s me wading ever so slowly forward on my novel and there’s my quest to find places to wear my cute dresses (or any clothes other than my cobalt blue work polo). And here and there, there is a tree turning orange at its tip in full confidence that the chill of season’s change will indeed come even if, at the moment, it hasn’t.

So here I am in the stolid Midwest, hopelessly trying to decipher it all, and then a couple days ago I was flipping through my day journal and I was reminded of something. I was reminded of sitting on the beach at Spanish Banks two nights before I left Vancouver. A few weeks before someone had given my friend Regula and I a couple of small bottles of real champagne as graduation gifts. We still had one left that we’d been forgetting and forgetting to drink. That night a group of folks were gathering, and since it was our last chance Regula brought the bottle. As the sun settled in to set to the far west of the mountains, the two of us passed it back and forth, swigging it lukewarm straight from the bottle, trying not to let our friend Aubrey see how improperly we were consuming her generosity. We giggled a lot and were very happy and free on bare sand. It was a celebration. I think I’d also brought a slice of chocolate cheesecake for my dinner which I didn’t share with anyone.  

What I felt as I remembered was not a pang of missing my life there like you might think, but more a pang of relief and understanding. The memory had become well-ordered in my mind now, not fragmentary, its rough edges rubbed away and its significance clear. This is what happens to things in the past. We forget just enough of them that what’s left is manageable, comprehensible. For instance, enough months had passed that I’d forgotten that though there was a large group at the beach that evening, I talked to no one but close friends and felt ashamed of my introversion. No, now the memory is nothing but joy—joy I can hold in my hand and sip.

It’s God’s faithfulness that this is so. That things (most things) eventually make sense, recede into their own well-ordered, jewel-like narrative, given time and space and remembering. If that day or week or season eventually came up clean in the wash, we can say to ourselves, then probably this one will too. After all, he’s still the same God he was back then. 

So maybe I’ll stop treating my present moment, my present life (which, incidentally is quite a good one) as if it’s some cipher I must labor over and bash my head against. Instead I’ll encourage myself to let the present be. I’ll keep collecting it as I always have, of course. I’ll fill jars and jars full of observations and moments and colors and thoughts, but then I’ll leave them be on a shelf and walk away. I’ll let time distill them till they make sense to me. And in the meantime, I’ll return to the memories that have aged and wisened, that have things to tell me. I will remember and taste and wonder over their many good gifts.

Free Spirits and Cracking Skin

A week or two ago I was interviewing for a job and as I was describing my background the woman interrupted and said to me, “You’re sort of a free spirit, aren’t you?” I didn’t know what to say because no one who knows me has ever, ever described me that way and also because a free spirit didn’t seem like a very employable thing to be, especially in the context of home health care. So my first instinct was to laugh nervously. But she smiled at me across the little conference room, with a big poster behind her that said, Angels are often disguised as dogs, and added, “It’s a good thing!” So I smiled back and said I hadn’t gotten that one before, but maybe, maybe so.

To be fair, I have been realizing recently that though I’ll be thirty this coming spring, I’m not unhappy about it, or even particularly surprised. I’ve put in the time. I’ve earned a new decade. Here I am in a new place, all split-level houses and beltline highways and Menard’s, soaking in the practical unpretentiousness of the midwest, and I feel as if I can look down at myself, at my arms and hands and feet and legs, and see the marks of living.

That’s not particular to me. I suspect life is like this for you too. We batter ourselves around or are battered. Sometimes we sink real low or are lifted very high. The vast changes in altitude make things shift within us, and cracks form, cracks in skin, in sinew, in spirit, everything from barely-perceptible hairline fractures to gaping fault lines. They’re the inevitable tracks of time. 

And sometimes there is pain in them. Then we can hold them up, raise the shards of our arms, our crooked hands, up towards the sun, and the light will come through the cracks, making them whole and even mending them, like some ethereal kintsugi. 

This mending happens often, I think. Yesterday I asked Calvin, who is almost three, if he wanted to see my cello, and he followed me eagerly downstairs without even knowing what a cello was. I played for a little while, mostly old Irish fiddling tunes, and he danced, arms and legs and even rear-end all akimbo. I realized that it had been a long time since I’d played with someone else in the room, years probably, maybe since my grandpa’s funeral. And Calvin danced and laughed and clapped as my fingers stumbled along.

And I also think this mending happens to so many of us. Just a couple days ago, a client asked for an orange with her dinner so I found one in the fridge and began to peel it and then had to return to her with some embarrassment and say that actually it was a grapefruit and would she like that instead? She lit up with that precious little old lady joy which is so like three-year-old joy and said, yes, she hadn’t been able to eat grapefruits for a long time but her daughter had bought her this one special and she was so excited to eat it because it would be her first one in five years. Oh, her first grapefruit in five years, wouldn’t it be wonderful? How very, very exciting! So I went back to the kitchen, free spirit that I am, and continued to peel it, separating white rind from pink flesh, happy to deliver the gift.

Contributions to Flight

I’ve been moving—all summer long really, but especially in the last week. I left Greensboro last Monday with a car full of boxes and crates and baskets and a cello and books stuffed in the cracks between all of them. I stayed a few days with friends in Cleveland and made it to Madison on Thursday.

And here I’ve been settling. My space is in the basement. I have two large windows which look out right on lawn level, as if I’m a growing thing, just poking my head up to see the world of grass and asphalt and the house across the street. Back in Vancouver, my windows were long and high and when I looked out from my bed, all I saw were trees and infinite sky. Yesterday Abby made me a copy of the house key, which I added to the ring next to a key to my parents’ house and a key to Melanie’s that I never gave back. (Sorry, Melanie. I also drove across the U.S. this summer with that sign in my back window that says “Resident of 3950.” I didn’t take it out until a couple days ago.)

Most of settling of course, along with becoming quickly familiar with the local Target and multiple thrift stores, is unpacking. And as I was disemboweling all the boxes and crates and baskets I came across an old pad of paper, one among many. Only the top sheet had been touched, and it was labeled “Contributions to Flight.” I scanned over what I’d scribbled below and realized they were the notes for a blog entry which never came to fruition. I made them while in transit from Greensboro to Vancouver exactly three years ago, and the point of them was how I didn’t really make that move relying much on my own efforts. The energy and confidence of a whole lot of other people had buoyed me right onto that plane.

In another box or crate or basket (or perhaps the same one) were dozens and dozens of envelopes with my name on them, in so many different handwritings. Cards and cards and cards: some for birthdays, some for Christmas, some for hello and some for good-bye, and some just because. I flipped through them, read a few of the most recent, and kept thinking, People are so nice sometimes. They’re just so nice. Maybe it’s funny to keep so many flammable scraps of handwriting reminding me of friends who I may never see again, who I maybe wasn’t even that close to, to drag them from place to place as I move. It’s a stubborn sort of constancy. As I shuffle them and stack them and stow them I imagine them bouying me as I go, providing an infinitely-expanding foundation beneath me as I move from one place to another. They, too, are contributions to flight.

So many things are, though. So many that I can hardly count them. Last week when I left my friend Laura’s house in Cleveland after visiting for a few days, her two-year-old helped me pack the car. He slowly rolled my small silver suitcase down the hall, out the front door, and along the walk to the driveway. And then that afternoon, when I got to Madison, the two-year-old of this house helped me unpack the car, carrying all those books that had been in the cracks between places. He would hold out his arms to take little stacks of three or four, sometimes stopping to stare down at an interesting cover with awe as he walked, then dumping each small load carefully in the corner of my room, over and over and over, until a great pile of riches rose up and up before us.