Brief Thoughts on Turning Thirty

I have a new client who’s almost a hundred and two. He’s very mobile and very sharp and used to be the assistant attorney general of the state of Wisconsin. The other day he mentioned that he had had eczema all his life. I thought, “Wow, you’ve had eczema for more than a hundred years,” and felt overwhelmed.

Anyway, that’s a roundabout way of saying I’m about to be thirty and I’m thinking about aging. The common wisdom you hear from someone who’s past this milestone already is that your thirties are a wonderful decade. In your thirties you’ve grown into your potential, they say. You’re no longer the insecure, haphazard mess you were in your twenties, but a happy, fulfilled, contented, perfected individual. To that end, I thought I’d write a blog entry for my thirtieth birthday called “Things I Didn’t Used to Know,” to share my accumulated knowledge with the waiting masses. 

But then the other day I read a new novel set largely on an island in the Caribbean and I was telling Abby about it and how I didn’t love it that much because it was over-plotted and maybe took itself too seriously, but how I really liked the setting. “It makes me want to know more about the ocean,” I said. “I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know about the ocean!” She started to laugh at me and then I started to laugh at me. The ocean is very, very large and almost infinitely mysterious. And perhaps there are many things I don’t know about many things.

The thing is, despite wanting to appear to be a competent adult who knows the things she’s supposed to know, I’ve always liked mystery, even liked uncertainty when it doesn’t present itself as a problem I need to solve. I drive the beltline here in Madison a whole lot, and without exception my favorite days to drive it are the foggy ones. They’re perhaps not the safest of the lot, but I’ve found that I like it when all familiar landmarks are obscured in the mist and all I’m left with is the yellow line to my left and the white line to my right, the steering wheel beneath my hands and the taillights of other cars ahead of me. It casts a spell, and even though I know I’m retracing the familiar path to my client Bonnie’s house, I also suspect that I’m about to emerge into a whole new world, full of colors and shapes and sounds I’ve never even dreamt.

Maybe in pursuit of that world, a few weekends ago on a sunny day I drove out into the countryside, starting near the home of a former client and then just getting myself lost on purpose on little winding roads rolling over hills. Every once in a while I’d pass another car and say to myself with a slightly superior air, “And to think that they’re trying to get somewhere.”

So as I’ve gotten closer to thirty, I learn more and I know more, sure, but the larger truth is that best of all are still those thin places and times and spaces when not-knowing is okay, when not-knowing is even preferable, when Mystery says, Come, child, come and see. The next decade of future is glowing strangely ahead through the fog, a deep ocean, teeming with as-yet unknown life. I’m likely just as ill-prepared for it as I was for my twenties. But that’s as it should be. Here we go and hallelujah.

Tell Stories

I’m sitting on the couch in the living room, watching out the window as cars make wide soaring turns onto our street. It’s gray out, but the sky seems to be done with both raining and snowing for the time being. 

I came home from my morning shift at lunchtime with the question looming: What would I do with the hours until 5:30 when I had to head back to work? (What should I do? What could I do?) I could’ve looked at my to-do list. I like lists. I create them, then they tell me where I am and what to do next. They’re a method of making sense, a method of self-control. Even my writing itself is frequently full of long, haphazard inventories. They help me feel like I’m managing, like I’ve got some sense of the scope of whatever’s in front of me.

But my productivity in many areas, including writing, has been low in the last few weeks. I’ve been half-a-stumbling-step ahead, rather than ten, as I’d prefer. That’s how it is sometimes.

So it’s not really lists—the nice, the neat, the orderly, the tidy—that I’ve been thinking about recently anyway. It’s stories—the messy, the splashy, the glowing, the inexplicable. Stories transcend our management.

My better moments in the past weeks have been moments of story-telling, when I’m talking to a friend and I think of something that happened two years ago, or eight, and get a couple sentences in, then stop myself, realizing what I’m about to do, and say, “Can I tell you this story?” And then, with my listener’s blessing, I go on.

And I’ll tell you something—when there’s no friend in the room, I just tell the stories to myself. I think of something a student or a cousin or a parent did some good while back and I launch into the tale in my head. When we tell stories—stories we care about—we do it actively, enthusiastically. So even just silently recounting some small narrative to myself, I can feel my eyes light up and my shoulders lean forward as if there’s an actual audience, my gray old winter heart rising.

I knew this, but I’d forgotten: stories are structures to hang our hope on. And I think this is because, unlike lists, stories are not entirely knowable. They’re positively littered with pockets of mystery and odd unsolvable detail, bits that call out our deepest human longings. To habitually tell stories—to others, to ourselves, to the wall, to the cat—renews somewhere in our souls the sense that we are perpetually on the edge of a very large story indeed, a story that we do not and cannot quite understand. It reminds us that there are plans much larger than our little lists, plans that will carry us in their arms, plans for glory and for justice and for grace. As Auden wrote, “Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety; You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.”

Anyway, I’m watching cars today. That wasn’t on the list. (And also writing. That was. That always is.)

On Going Home to Get Old

I have a client who’s almost ninety-five and recently, she’s been having a lot of trouble moving from one chair to another. She has trouble standing up from her seat on the couch, trouble shifting her tiny center of gravity so she doesn’t topple over, trouble turning around to sit on the seat of her walker so I can wheel her across the room to where her dinner waits for her on the table. “Oh, boy…” she says over and over to herself and to me, “Oh, wow.” And when she has trouble I stand there beside her, one hand on her back and one hand on her walker to stabilize each, having trouble right along with her. The whole operation is fraught with peril. 

I didn’t used to know this, I don’t think, but the great fear of the aged is not death—death looks relatively friendly to most folks in their eighties and nineties. The great fear of the aged is of isolation, of confusion, of falling, of no longer being able to see to read, of forgetting, of not being able to reach the phone or (especially) the toilet when you need them, of the embarrassment of soiling your sheets in the morning and having someone come in to clean you up.

Their fears are not lofty. They are normal and average and small and continually recurring, like most of yours and most of mine.

I realized a few days ago that, perhaps unsurprisingly considering my current job, I’ve been thinking about these basic rhythms and anxieties of old age for quite a while now. I decided back in December to move home to Greensboro come this summer, and while there were a whole host of factors influencing that decision, I think that this has been one of them.

It’s hard to explain, perhaps. I can very easily walk across a room unassisted and I expect to be able to do so for decades and decades to come. Yet every time Phyllis struggles to stand, to balance her hip bones over her foot bones, I feel an odd shivering kinship with her. It’s not compassion or even pity exactly; it’s awareness of the arc of a human life, that eventually bones settle down and calcify into dust, often while the person attached to those bones continues to live—continues to eat, sleep, defecate, carry on a conversation. I suppose I am tasting and touching and witnessing all the realities of human embodiment and place.

Not coincidentally, I’ve finally been re-reading Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow, at a very gradual pace. And while Jayber himself and Berry’s need for a more ruthless editor still annoy the bejeezus out of me at least a third of the time, the man knows how to be a human in a place, how to plant his feet in the soil his flesh will return to and live a whole life from a single spot. I’ve always found that idea compelling, but I think I might’ve forgot it for a while. It’s good to be reminded.

Anyway. This year has been a valuable detour—a gift in many ways, difficult in others, often both. I suspect it’ll continue to be all those things. I’m here for a few more months. But it makes a great deal of sense to me to take my thirty-year-old self back to the place where I was born, where I grew up full of aches and pains and joys, where I taught and learned, and dig my heels deep and make plans to be an old lady there someday. 

Plans can change, I know. But you’ve got to choose something. And perhaps it doesn’t really matter where you spend your final years, or any of your years. Wherever you are at the end of your life, you’re likely to have an over-cheerful caregiver who natters on loudly to you about the plot of The Truman Show as she pulls up your Depends like I did to Phyllis just the other day. But, then again, perhaps it does mean something to walk the same ground over and over for a whole life long in different sized shoes till you can walk no longer. I very much hope so.

January

This is my day off and the main thing I want to do today is write this. Write this and take a walk.

I spent almost two weeks at home in Greensboro over Christmas and New Year’s. There’s no real replacement for going right back to a place you’ve once lived, because only in person can you remember the little pieces of yourself that you’ve left embedded in its cracks. 

One night I was up late in the dark after finishing reading a novel and I sat on the top step of the stairs and looked out the window. I remembered how when I was a girl, in the winter, I used to wake out of a dead sleep, come blearily to this window, and squint out hopefully. Outside the yard and the cars and the trees and the pavement and the shed roof would all glint softly monochrome under the streetlights of the condo parking lot next door, and joy would wash over me. Snow. I’d go back to bed dreaming of school cancellations. Then my mom would wake me at 6:30 and I’d say, “No, but Mom, it snowed!” And she’d say, “No, it didn’t,” so I’d go to the window of the night before and find that everything was dull and damp and dark grey, with no hint of the magic I’d seen only hours earlier. 

I think a few of those mornings I went to school still fervently believing that it had snowed in the middle of the night after all, but it had melted so fast, and no one but me, alone at my window at the top of the stairs, had seen it. But as I sat on that step a couple weeks ago, I had to admit to myself fully—perhaps for the first time—that there’d never been glistening snow that had come and gone in the quiet hours with only a nine-year-old girl as witness, that what my sleepy eyes had seen was a trick of the light.

Because even twenty years later the way that streetlight sits on the yard and the cars and the trees and the pavements and the shed roof is something uncanny. It’s glittering gold that hangs in heavy wet air. When you look out that window at that time, the world is monochrome, but it’s not white like snow—it’s all other-worldly amber, born out of thoroughly unmystical street lamps crisscrossed with power lines. So perhaps it’s not so much a trick of the light as it is a gift of it.

Anyway.

I’m back in Madison now, going to work most days where I cook bacon and eggs and give nebulizer treatments and read novels in snippets and take out the trash and have the headlines of the Monday paper read aloud to me and sit listening to the puff of an oxygen machine while looking up at a framed pen drawing of a man sitting on a bench by a window, a man who is clearly waiting for something.

There is snow on the ground here—real snow, that shows up at all times of day. It brings with it a bright, dull hush—turning the sound of the world down and the light of the world up. So when I am not at work I look out the window at its whiteness and think through my novel, which is in its final stretch before I begin sending it to agents. I need to fiddle with the pacing a bit in most chapters, and write a convincing query letter and then, well, I try. I start clicking ‘Send.’

I’m hopeful about it at the moment. I’m hopeful about it the way I used to be when I’d pull myself diligently out of bed and sleep, to pad over creaking floorboards to a still, dark window. I’d rub my eyes and look. There might not be snow as I envisioned it, but there would be something waiting there for me, something worth seeing.

2021 Retrospective

I skimmed over the entries in my day journal to write this. It was a task I was dreading a bit, to tell the truth. But the more I read my little scribbled phrases, the more I found myself moved by the many small oddly-shaped pieces of the year.

The first thing I did this year, according to my journal, was “woke up sad.” And then that evening I watched Henry V with my family, with that impossibly long shot of Kenneth Branaugh carrying Christian Bale through the ruins of the battle. Within a few days, I was back in Canada, quarantining in an AirBnB, talking to friend after friend on the phone, and falling asleep at night to Derry Girls.

So that was the beginning. What followed those weeks of solitude was a sort of triptych year: five old-feeling months in Vancouver, three unrooted months all over the U.S., and four new-feeling months in Madison.

In Vancouver, I took walks and handed out books at curbside pick-up at the library.  We were still pretty tightly locked down most of those months. I missed in-person chapel desperately. But one night in February, despite it all, three friends and I got dressed to the nines, went to a dinner with wine and lamb shank, and pretended like nothing was wrong. Rach and I even shared lipstick. Also that month I did a project where I interviewed thirty people about clothing. Apparently on February 15, I interviewed three people over the phone, took walks with two friends, and watched a lot of Broadchurch. That’s about how things were. I made paper flowers for Easter with my housemates and I waited. Eventually, after much hand-wringing, I presented my final project and had champagne. Then I graduated, read a poem, and had champagne again. As COVID restrictions began to lift, I left.

I drove down to Lake Tahoe all by my lonesome and once there spent most of the two weeks either walking to the grocery store in sandals or curled up on the corner of the couch with a book or the hard copy of my novel draft. But my Granddad also drove us around the lake and the water was blue, blue, blue. Then George came and we drove Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and then home. We took pictures all along and I wrote too much and with the help of a friend put it all together into a laborious photobook as a souvenir of my summer angst. I helped my Dad make a quiz for a 4th of July party, saw old friends who treated me gently, ran into former students all properly grown up, and listened to so many audiobooks. I drove a lot of toll roads.

Then I came to Madison where I got used to baby spit-up on my clothes, read The Mennyms aloud, immediately joined the local library, watched a whole season of Survivor with Abby and Taylor and then introduced them to my favorite shows, and where, in October, my favorite thing of all was driving out to my clients’ house south of the city, through rolling green-black fields and blue skies. At work I started a project recording life stories, yet again interviewing people. I heard more about football than I ever wanted to, drove up and down the beltline so many times, tried to get used to being the help in other people’s homes, and went apple picking.

I lived in wilderness this year, though often not by choice: squinting over fields at sunsets, doing writing coaching while wandering in the woods, walking to the beach when there were beaches to walk to, hiking in Sierra meadows with my grandfather.

Yet somehow the mechanisms of life kept churning: I ate really good ice cream, read the best bits of Wind in the Willows aloud, had family video calls, left voice messages, made a new friend or several, went to the dentist, had two clothing swaps in two different countries, went on a handful of dates (not particularly successfully), ended up on Medicaid which felt jarring but not bad, and ate cheese souffle on my birthday like I did when I was a little girl. I received so much hospitality from so many people.

I was in Karen’s wedding, which was sweet but inevitably reminded me that I’m not much of a bridesmaid. I got several oil changes, and my check engine light now comes brightly on anytime I drive through mountains. I made a lot of s’mores and cooked a lot of eggs. I stayed with several cousins I hadn’t seen in years. I sat at a backyard table in Pennsylvania shelling limas from my mom’s garden, and ate a sub at a steamy, dusty gas station in Utah amidst shedding cottonwoods. And I read more than I have since childhood, discovering Kazuo Ishiguro and rediscovering Kate Atkinson and Anne herself.

Inevitably I did new things. I watched a friend play harpsichord in a garden, rescued a bird on my old college campus, visited the zoo with a toddler, injured my finger in a vacuum cleaner, gave sponge baths, made my first pecan pie, got my first COVID test, and finally posted on instagram.

And of course, I spent most of the year intermittently laboring over a single novel draft. Writing takes a long old time. I sometimes forget that. And most of my writing this year I did as duty, as task. It often seemed curiously devoid of joy.

Only in constructing this entry have I been able to admit something to myself: this year has been a lot. A lot of good, a lot of strange, a lot of difficult, a lot of a lot. And the last two or three weeks have been especially hard, so I’ve gotten uncharacteristically bad at getting back to people. Sorry about that, friends.

But the other day, I picked up the now-finished draft I hadn’t looked at since Thanksgiving. I skimmed and sometimes properly read it. I’ll tell you a secret: to my surprise, it wasn’t half-bad. All those plodding hours crouched in my chair or curled on my bed, balancing my laptop on my knees, had yielded something that was better than it had been before. So perhaps those who sow with tears will reap with shouts of joy, after all. And perhaps even 2021, in all its grainy, changeable, overwhelming detail, has yielded many things—not all things, but more than we know—that are better than they had been before.

Because today is the day the year starts to get lighter. And even now, in the darkness over Bethlehem, a star is rising.

Ordinary Time Advent

When I was a kid, like most of us, the Christmas season was about wonder and excitement. It was about the lights and the eggnog and the presents and the time off of school and the orange balls my grandma would make and that one well-worn cassette tape we had of the Grinch. 

Then I got old enough for nostalgia, maybe fourteen or fifteen, and it became about a sweet wistfulness for all of those things, for the long car rides where we read A Christmas Carol aloud, for decorating the tree together, for sitting seven to a couch with my cousins, for loud Christmas duets.

And then, as an adult, maybe sometime late in college, Christmas became about advent. It became about the waiting, the waiting for the coming promise. I would arrive weary at the end of a year, knowing I could watch light dawn gradual and gentle over the dim air around me. There were even times I arrived at the waiting of advent before the calendar did, times my longing for the squirming, wailing Hope of the incarnation was so fierce that my eyes were peeled for stars and my ears were pricked for heavenly choirs early in November.

But that has not been this year. To my slight consternation, this year, I’ve struggled to find my way into the waiting and the wanting. Nothing very adventy seems to be making its way in, no matter how I expose myself to it. Not much stirs within me. I mostly seem capable of just practically and stolidly going about my business, washing sheets and unloading dishwashers and petting cats and putting on my boots.

The other day I remembered the shepherds, though. The shepherds who are just going along, sitting out in the cold of the fields at night as they have for a thousand nights, watching out not for something big and revelatory, but for the small usual bits of danger that might hurt their flock. They are worn and sleepy, living trudgingly in the time being because that’s all they’ve ever known.

—And then a whole celestial choir full of light and cymbals and trumpets and divine voice busts the sky open and descends upon them right then and there and tells them that the most shocking and wonderful of gifts is waiting right around the corner for them, and they can take their cold, calloused, incarnate feet and run them over to the next town and there they’ll find a tiny incarnate God who will grow up to save them all—

It’s quite a turn of events. But that’s the thing about revelation—we don’t know, can’t know, what it actually is, until it breaks upon us, until it is revealed. Whether we wait in blessed expectation or are busy sweeping the kitchen floor and can’t see much past the nose on our own face, the angel’s words are just the same and just as grand and just as world-reversing: “He is Christ the Lord!”

So I think I’m settling in to be a shepherd this year, just going to the field and doing my job and putting gas in my car when it needs it. At some point, that sky will get light and that singing will start and it’ll all wash over me like a flood.

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.