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.

Old, New, and Eternal

I have about two weeks before I leave North Carolina and move to the midwest. At first it was very quiet here, and then for the last week-and-change it’s been very busy. I’ve had dinner with friends most nights, read novels which have climbed into me (as all good novels do), marked up chapters of my own draft for revision, and sorted through all my worldly goods and wondered why there are so many of them.

I was nervous to be home. And I have not been very graceful in this in between space, suspended between a life in Vancouver and a life in Wisconsin, bound to the past on one side and the future on the other by thin threads which I mistrust, hanging over what I perceive to be a terrifying abyss. But the stones and earth laid beneath my bare summer feet here have often been steadfast and gentle. I’ve been struck by the patience and the enduring, unearned affection not only of my parents, but of friends who want to see me and listen to me even when I am less than pleasant, who warmly draw up a chair and lay a place for me though I’ve been gone a long old time. One friend told me the other day that if and when I did come back to stay here, I could live with her. She’d clearly been thinking about it for a while. I know that Madison is the next right step at the moment but I’m surprised to realize that I could want to have a life here again, sooner than I think. It’s a reassurance I did not look for, but it’s no less welcome for that.

This strange summer has been spent wrestling with the old and the new and whether either is worth saving. I’ve been dissatisfied and obnoxiously existential. Yet I’ve been looking, I realize now, for what eternal things I can salvage from past or from present or from future, for things I can stand on, rely on. My most deep and definite desire of the last few months, beyond all practical, obvious goods, beyond anything, has been to break into the gospels, right into the middle of Matthew or Mark or Luke, through the spine of the Book, into the crowded street where Jesus is, and to touch the hem of his garment, thin fingertips to dusty, woven fibers. I’m longing for such a flow of resolute holiness as I might receive in that moment, to drown the cacophony of other voices which course through me and exhaust me.

The steady goodnesses from my friends in recent weeks are not the same as jolts of healing, saving power, but they are reflections of it, “good dreams” as Lewis calls them, rearing their heads and yelping awkwardly and sweetly of eternity. They remind me that I do not need to know how everything works for me and for all those around me, past, present, and future, in order to trust in the razor sharpness and utter constancy of the life which Christ both promises and provides. The way ahead, whatever it is, will be hard but also simple. That’s just the way it goes. John Bunyan was onto something when he wrote about the straight and narrow. My existential abyss is more imagined than real. 

My parents are out of town at the moment, so this morning I picked the vegetables in my mom’s garden for her. It’s bigger than it really needs to be for only two people, but she loves growing things and there used to be more of us to feed. That garden has continued to be and continued to be every summer as long as I can remember. So I put on leggings and a hat to protect me from the elements, and listened to an audiobook. It was sticky and sweaty and itchy work: picking the dark purple runner beans from curling vines, my kitchen knife slipping easily through the stalks of okra and yellow squash and the stinging green stems of eggplant, crouching to rustle through the low lima plants, back and forth, over and under, looking for hidden pods, and then the cherry tomatoes falling red off the vine into my palm, dozens and dozens and dozens of them. At the end of an hour, I had a huge bowl wider than my hips which was full to the brim, a small mountain of color dusted with soil.

In Defense of Confidence

Two nights before I left Vancouver I sat on the beach with friends, and one of them posed a question: what did each of us feel absolutely confident in? What ability or sphere did we not worry about, did we firmly believe was a strength? It’s actually a weirdly vulnerable question to answer in front of others (because what if they think your confidence is misplaced?!?) but sitting on the sand, in the cradle of sea and mountain and city, we did it. I, perhaps embarrassingly, knew my answers immediately. I am confident that I can write, and I am confident that I can dress myself well.

Over the last couple of weeks, though, confidence has not been on my mind. I’ve felt bogged down. Since I’ve been at the cabin here at Tahoe I’ve been back at revising the novel, though it feels like more of a chore than it did before. I’ve wondered if shaping my life for the next year or so around the possibility of getting it published is foolish, if people are looking at me and thinking my confidence is misplaced, if there’s any room for me in the already over-saturated literary industry, if what I’m doing is more a game of chance than a game of talent. I’ve had conversations in the last few days with family and friends in which I’ve explained every bit of the issue, willing them to understand the Rubik’s cube of my anxieties, willing them to say the right thing, the magic words that will make me feel better. But no one has, and I’m beginning to think that this fear over the risks I’m taking is simply the Rubicon I have to cross at the moment, and solid ground will appear in the distance again if I’m patient. But still. I must ford it for now, and it’s unpleasant.

And then last night, after a good cleansing cry, the likes of which I hadn’t had in a long, long time, I found myself thinking back to one of my earliest moments of confidence in my writing. I was thirteen years old and after a science test I pulled out a small journal, while others slept or whispered or continued to struggle over multiple choice questions. I found a pencil and began to describe the scene around me and an immense wave of satisfaction washed over me, because the sentences I had written were clever—they were right. I’d done good. I’d want an audience very soon, but in that moment, even with my plain brown eyes and the awkward hands I was embarrassed of, I did not need anyone to tell me that I’d bundled real life into a few biting words on the page. I knew it for myself. No one, I was gloriously certain as I looked down at that yellow and brown notebook, could do what I had just done.

Writing looks much different now. I watch the world around me more humbly than I used to. I wait for revelation, for light. I gather pieces of it like pebbles to see if once I sit down with them, and hold them in my hand, I can scrabble up the words to do justice to their beauty and their oddity. In the past week, I have collected the glitter of sand in the water as it comes up to the lake shore in gentle waves, a young couple with dreads, looking as if they’ve been hitchhiking for days, sitting exhausted against the back of Whole Foods, two stellar’s jays with tall black crests, the evening light on the long row of old wine corks on the kitchen windowsill, and a man at Fallen Leaf Lake today, asleep in his golf cart on his property, feet propped up by the steering wheel.

But none of this would have been possible without that girl in the science classroom and her supreme sense of confidence over a fifty word journal entry scrawled in a pencil that needed sharpening. She was and is the one, more than any outside voice, who reminds me that yes, of course I can do something with all these tiny gifts, of course I can write. Why would I assume for a second that I couldn’t? Writing is joy.

But writing is different from publishing. And there I have no native confidence that an agent scanning with an eye for saleability will immediately see the value of what I am trying to do, no confidence that I can instinctively make the right decisions about where and how to settle for now, about how long to wait for a bite on the manuscript, about what job to take in the meantime, about which creature comforts to sacrifice and which to cling to. The route I’m taking seems ridiculous, untried, and uncertain.

And yet. Last night I guess I thought about my thirteen-year-old self a lot. Because I also for some reason remembered the time I wore denim-on-denim to play practice. After school I’d changed from my uniform with much deliberation into jeans and a pale denim jacket (which I’d always zip to the exact same point to make me look like I had a figure that I definitely didn’t—and still don’t—have). I can still see myself walking down the deck outside the modulars toward the drama room with my heart in my throat. I can’t entirely tell you why I wore it, even today. The outfit was a simultaneously conscious and nerve-wracking choice. Certainly no one else would be wearing anything like it. In fact, I wasn’t entirely sure if I liked something so matchy, if it looked good, and none of my friends were in the play so I’d have no safe camaraderie to run to once I arrived. I’d be on my own, looking unusual. But I knew that if I didn’t try, I’d never know—what if me walking into the room in shoulder-to-toe denim would be the most beautiful thing the world had ever seen? So, without consulting anyone, I chose confidence, because that was the only way further up and further in. Funnily, I don’t remember what happened when I did walk in. It must not have been very important.

So perhaps I learned everything I’ll ever need to know about confidence back in 2005. Even then, I knew that confidence was not so much ego as it was trust. It was utter trust in a gift, trust that it was not some cosmic mistake that something had fallen into my lap, but instead that Someone had placed it there on purpose and I ought to follow the urge in my gut to hold it up to the late afternoon light and laugh over it with words. And strangely enough, even back then I knew confidence had to admit an element of risk, a willingness to fail. I knew that the things which are the most good and the most beautiful and the most true all ultimately happen and become themselves in places where there is no cover from enemy fire—in open meadows and out on the western plains.

On Packing

I’ve been wandering my way towards writing this entry for several days now.

Sometime around a week ago (I’ve forgotten how long) I decided I was going to stop overthinking things. And by things, I mean leaving Vancouver and Regent and my life here, and the responsibility of saying goodbye, and trying to do a good job of it. I’m just going to live the last few weeks here, and then leave.

This decision was concurrent with the realization that the thing that matters most to me in leaving is packing. I like sorting—I always have. And in packing I get to sit in my room literally sorting through the pieces of my life: the clothes, and the books, and the papers, and the birthday cards, and the travel mugs, and the toiletries I thought I would use but definitely never did, and the bobby pins, and the shoes, and the map of Canada that my American brother gave me, and the jackets, and the novel drafts, and the piece of paper from a few months ago on which I drew multiple graphs charting my levels of happiness over the course of different semesters in Vancouver which perhaps proves that my choice to stop overthinking was long overdue. 

So I like packing. That’s one thing. I like sitting with the windows open in the afternoon sunshine and touching each of my possessions after a year without touch, putting them in piles to give away or keep or send on to the next place, telling the housemate on my bed what each of them is and why it is that way. It’s almost as good as having everybody I love in the same big room and getting to share a secret conspiratorial grin with every one in turn and feel so glad to know them.

Because that’s the other thing: it’s occurred to me that probably the best way of doing justice to my life and times at Regent and the channels they have made in me is not through thinking or talking or even poetry, but just through action, through continuing to do the thing I’ve been doing. I don’t need to make or dig for meaning, because I’m already surrounded by it. It’s in the mementos that crowd my room and in the ongoing everyday actions of my housemates and my friends and even the dog. It’s in the food and the drink and the spring leaves and the wind and the familiar sidewalks. I’m in it and under it and on it.

The last blog entry I wrote before I arrived here in 2018 was called “Seismic Shifts,” about God moving the ground beneath my feet, all of our feet, and from my little vantage point of clutter in the pale pink bedroom with the high window I can see that that divine movement has unearthed so much color and raw glory in the last three years. So as I leave again, I’m happy to simply trust the slow, dusty movements beneath me in their good work.

Yet I must say, in a certain way I feel much more as if I’m headed towards something than I did when I left Greensboro to come to Vancouver. I’m heading towards home, wherever that may be.

Talking to My First-Year Self

If you read these often enough, you may remember that I have a journal where I like to write three little lines about what I did every day. I’ve done it for about a decade now. Its main purpose is to be able to look back to a month ago or a year ago or three, and see what surprises or mishaps I felt were worth recording. But I’ve found that in the last year I’ve stopped reading back so much. I still dutifully write down the small happenings of the day, but I can’t bear to look back at the doings of pre-COVID Alice, because I find myself thinking that she didn’t know. She just didn’t know.

Yet over the last few weeks as I’ve presented my final project, wrapped up last assignments, turned twenty-nine, and realized how very numbered my days in the Regent building are, I’ve been thinking back to my past self quite a lot, involuntarily. Specifically, to the Alice of fall 2018, the one who walked in bone-weary and wide-eyed in her brave gold shoes, unconcerned over whether she would make a single friend. And I’ve begun to wonder, as I squint through the fog of this month’s impending goodbyes and the summer’s personal tectonic shifts, if she’d have anything to offer me. What if she did know some things, things I’ve since forgotten?

So I imagine that she and I could find each other and sit down on a bench together in some wood between the worlds, some place between then and now, and have a talk. The trees in that place are very tall and let in a lot of light, and where we sit we can hear voices in the distance, but they never get any closer. It is warm and still there, and we are dressed for August. I begin by telling her all about how tired I am here in Spring of 2021 and all the things that have made me that way. 

I am trying to impress her with my feelings, but she is difficult to impress. She only nods placidly. So I up the ante and tell her that in my old age (read: in the last few months) I have become bitter and sometimes angry.

She does seem surprised by this and turns to face me fully. “I don’t know about that,” she says.

I look down at my hands. “You don’t know about a lot of things,” I say to her in triumph.

She grins and laughs. “Yeah, ain’t that the truth?” Annoyed that her self-deprecation is disrupting my narrative, I slouch down against the wooden bench. She sees this, and tries again, her voice low and earnest, “Listen, you can withstand a lot, kiddo. You know that.”

“But I shouldn’t have to,” I say.

“Maybe,” she says. “But it’s not forever.” I stay very still and quiet, brushing my bare feet back and forth against the soft grass. I know what’s coming next. Crouched sideways on the bench, knees poking towards me, she continues, “Do you remember how when you first came here, you didn’t think you’d ever really be happy again? Like you didn’t even know it was possible?” 

“Yeah,” I say, because I do remember.

Sounding awed because she is talking about her own present, she says, “And then you were. Just like that, you were happy.”

I let my tight-folded arms drop into my lap. “Yeah, I remember. It was like…fresh air.” She waits. She knows me, so she waits. At last I say, “I do think I’ll be happy again. I don’t worry about that now.”

“You’re not scared,” she says. It’s not a question.

I let my feet drop through the grass to meet the cool soil. “Not most of the time, no. Just overwhelmed. And small.”

She shrugs. “Small is good.” 

“Small is good,” I admit. It’s not really worth fighting her. She knows I know she’s right.

We sit there being small for a little while. And then she speaks up again, her voice slow because she has another idea. “When you first came here you could only process everything by writing poems. Because you could only understand one new thing at a time. And you were content to see just the trees and not the whole forest. Could you try that now?”

I think for a while, honest thinking. “I could try,” I tell her at last in a little voice.

“Trying is all you have to do,” she says.

“I forget that.” Then I smile, which is a relief to my whole body, and add, “But I forget a lot of things, I guess.”

She twists her body on the bench to face forward again, clearly pleased with herself and her work. “So I came to remind you. Trying and failing is my area of expertise, you know.”

“Oh, I know.” I laugh at her and she laughs at her.

We are quiet again and she glances over at me appraisingly. She’s such a stare-er, I realize. More than I ever knew when I was her. Not sure if I’m joking or not, I ask, “So is my sadness interesting?”

“Not very,” she says, looking away.

I feel a rush of affection and shake my head. “Bless,” I say.

She glances back in slight horror. “Do you say that now?”

“Oh, I say that now!” I tell her.

“Lord, help,” she says.

Just Showing Up

It’s snowing. I just got back from my evening church service fifteen minutes ago, and outside under the golden street light I can already see a delicate icing sugar layer building up on my car. The air is colder than it was.

I like to think that most of the time what I write on here touches on the universal, but I’m not sure that what I’m about to say will. To some of you it may feel quite foreign, and I run the risk of being a writer without an audience. But on we go, because putting words into the white is longstanding habit.

I’ve realized recently that one of the things which I have learned to treasure since coming to Regent is the value of just showing up. If there is somewhere to be, an invitation given, an event planned, you say yes, you go, you just do it. Of course, I always thought of showing up as valuable: good for us, good for the people around us, good for building up everyone’s favorite abstract concept–community.  So be reliable, be committed, show up. You are participating in what people around here call “the ministry of presence.”

But it used to be that doing so made me sick to my stomach. I thought showing up for things had paramount value, and for years that value came with extra tasks attached: I was supposed to fit in, to be bright and charming, to have something to say, and just please, for God’s sake, be more than an odd, oblong lump in the corner. When I was tired or overwhelmed, or feeling particularly shy, the pressure was nearly paralyzing. Once, I tried to go to a new Bible study with kind leaders who had repeatedly invited me but ended up instead in a grocery store parking lot about a mile away, weeping uncontrollably. I couldn’t do it. I went home. 

Showing up was the thing which always took the most courage, more courage than facing rooms full of teenagers daily, more courage than giving a commencement address in front of hundreds of people including a handful who had sent me less-than-kind emails, and more courage than quitting the job I had always wanted. Showing up was terrifying.

But somehow my paradigm about showing up has shifted. My sense of its value has become keener, but it’s not so fearsome as it used to be. I’m not sure what precipitated the change. Maybe it was sitting silently, taking notes in dozens of RCSA meetings, maybe it was writing a tongue-in-cheek article about being shy and publishing it in the school newspaper, or maybe it was merely my mother telling me that anyone who liked me would like the fact that I was quiet in a group, because that was a part of me and there was nothing wrong with it. (Believe it or not, this had never occurred to me.) But whatever it was, I have stopped thinking of showing up as a performance, a pulling together of all my emotional resources to understand and adapt to a new environment, and instead started thinking of it as a simple physical action. Showing up is getting on the bus, getting in my car, walking into the room, sitting in that chair. Showing up is merely that: showing up. So what if you sit alone and don’t manage to string more than three words together? Those are separate challenges for another day, maybe for never. You showed up.

And somehow, I have learned that, by some divine grace, this much simpler duty still participates in the ministry of presence, still contributes to community, still matters. When I stop and remember, I realize that perhaps it always did. My junior year of college I gave a paper at a small academic conference my school was hosting. I invited some friends to come, including classmates from a seminar. Only one person from the seminar came. He slouched in wearing sweatpants right before it began and sat in the very back, likely the only STEM student in a room full of English scholars all discussing metaphysical poetry. Afterwards, he approached me briefly, complimented my presentation as a matter of course, and then was gone. I didn’t need him there. I wasn’t particularly anxious, I had other friends present, and frankly, in that moment he was just an odd, oblong lump in the corner, and yet I remember feeling particularly touched. He had showed up just to show up. It was an important act, and the beginning of a real friendship.

So, more and more over the last year, I have unconsciously begun to take his approach to showing up. And in doing so, I’ve learned things. I have learned that in giving myself permission to be dumb and dull and quiet and small, I am aware of my God’s gargantuan love for me, even when I shrink to this size. I have learned about sitting in the middle of that love and straining my eyes to see the place where its waves touch its sky.

I’ve also learned that simply physically showing up and giving myself no other necessary task than to sit still in the palm of my Maker frees me. It frees me to occasionally be bright and charming. Sometimes when I show up now, I even have something to say.

The Souls of Things

I am home this week in the quiet and the soft, sticky heat of my parents’ house, and I have just been sorting through books. Box after box, cover after cover, my hands built up a bit of a residue with all the handling and I went reluctantly to wash them. There is nothing, but nothing, which makes me so simultaneously grateful and able to write as simply touching a whole lot of my own books. As I flick the pages they release their ghosts so quickly that the room is full in a matter of minutes. Ghosts of characters, of authors, of friends, family, teachers, of myself as a child, and, wildly and nonsensically, the ghosts of all of us in some eternal future. For these words, printed and dusty and sometimes crumbling, are already pumping through the veins of many of us, pushing us on to somewhere else.

One of them is a book I was assigned to read in undergrad. It’s by a man named Vigen Guroian and it’s called Inheriting Paradise: Meditations on Gardening. I can think of about twenty-five different people at Regent who would devour it in one sitting if they haven’t already. In fact I was startled by the number of books I was setting aside to take back to Vancouver, not because I love them, but because I know someone else would.

On Thursday night, as I waited in the Vancouver airport curled in a chair looking back out over the darkening city, I felt an unfamiliar ache realizing that though I’d only be gone for about three weeks, there were people in that place whom I would miss. And as our plane lowered itself through North Carolina’s clouds the next morning I looked down at the green and the trees and began to cry because I loved them so much, because though practically speaking they grow in clay and soil, they also somehow grow in me.

I’m getting soft in my old age. Or that’s what I thought. And then came today and the boxes of books, and I was reminded that it’s always been such. I was made soft, I think. I can pretend that I am not sentimental, that I operate efficiently and practically, up until something in my soul stubs its toe on or wraps its little finger around a tangible object in some concrete place, and then I’m toast. When I left Caldwell last year, I did not cry on the last day of school, but when, a week later, I realized that a stack of precious final assignments from past students had been inadvertently thrown out in my classroom, I drove to school in a flood of tears at nine pm, to see if I could get to the trash before the cleaning crew did. And I’ve spent the last few weeks working on a series of poems about my grandparents and though they are certainly written in memory of them, to my surprise much of what I wrote is actually about their house, their driveway, their dry summer grass.

It’s things that always get me, I suppose because I feel a kinship with their frailty. They were made with high hopes of being some use, imbued with sacred meaning and purpose, whether small like a safety pin or large like my mother’s PhD dissertation. Perhaps they were loved and valued, and perhaps they show marks of it, but inevitably, eventually, they also show marks of time and age and general thing-ly weariness. And when I was sorting books today the weariness of so many of those cracked spines made their mysterious secrets leak out in glistening dust onto my palms. Because a thing cannot spend too long in the human world, in the flickering shadow of the divine image, without becoming just a bit eternal.

The Things We Carry

I was just scrolling back through the folder where I keep copies of all these blog entries along with the unfinished little runts that never make it out into the light of public consumption, and found a document from late 2017 titled “The Lost Year and Moving Forward.” The only thing it says is “Feb 22.” Its brevity seems much more melodramatic than it actually is, I promise. What follows is the story I know I meant to tell back then (though I think I have a better ending now).

My sophomore year of college, I began a little journaling exercise in which, each day, I would write two lines about what I had done: who I saw, what was significant, how I felt. I didn’t keep on top of it as I could have, and was often doing two or three days at once, but I liked reading back over and knowing what I had been doing a month or, eventually, a year or more before. My love of writing is many things, but it’s partly always just been a very simple inclination towards record-keeping. I like to mark down and remember. I kept this day journal up for years, but then, in February of 2017 I had worn a bit too thin. I was feeling lost and heavy. I had a just made the decision to come to Regent, but was deferring for a year, so while change was on its way it was still a while down the road. I kept finding myself getting weeks behind in my journaling endeavor, and then struggling with the unsavory task of remembering what now-forgotten stresses last Thursday had held. So I gave up. And wrote in large letters after my last entry, “And then a respite.”

But, with the notable exception of a week roaming in Wales with my family, what followed did not feel like rest. I continued lost and heavy. And now also unrecorded. What I did and experienced each day, good or ill, was no longer stored away in ink, so most of it slipped out of my head at some point or another to be lost in the ether, as if it had no value at all.

And then came the making of the very short document which I mentioned at the beginning. I think I planned to announce to the world that I had wandered but all was not lost, that I was picking the journaling habit back up with great ceremony, exactly a year after I had left off. This felt poetic, and I love trying to force my life into stanzas. But then I didn’t do it. January of 2018, when I wrote this entry, was particularly painful for many people around me, and I spent the rest of my time in Greensboro living in acceptance of the fact that I was standing on a precipice, held only by the steadfast grace of God. All else was clearly tenuous. And my days continued to pass undiarized, uncared-for.

Then, at the end of last summer, I got on a plane with two suitcases and myself. And after I finally made it here to the green and the August smoke, I had a good cry, opened to a fresh page in the long-abandoned journal, and at last began again. And fall semester was that fresh page: smooth and unsullied. I was in a new place, light and empty, no real responsibilities, nothing tied to my heels any longer. Most days, my feet did not touch the ground. But winter term was markedly different. It was in many ways richer, but also more complex and prickly. Somewhere in my short months in Vancouver, I had sunk in to the happy mud of this place and rooted there. So by February, or maybe sooner, I knew that my emotional vacation was over. I carried things now: people and words and hopes and promises. I look over the little journal entries of my time here and I can see how the place has grabbed on, in a thousand little moments burrowing into a thousand different parts of me. Quicker than I had ever planned, I was back to bearing burdens.

A couple weeks ago, when I walked along Cannon Beach in Oregon with my friend Becky, she teased me about my childlike tendency to grab some large piece of driftwood by its end and pull it behind me, like a silent, reliant beast, drawing a long, long line in the sand which stretched back and back through our footprints. But dragging a stick, sharing its weight with the earth for a while, felt very important to me that day, like walking along a stone wall does when you’re a child. I thought of this moment again recently as I was reading a book by my new friend Robert Farrar Capon, in which he talks about picking a huge marsh reed while on a walk and attempting to bring it back for his children:

To grasp it with one hand and use it in your walking only turns you from a king into an apostle; to try to make light of it by holding it upside-down is to become a deacon carrying the inverted crozier at an archbishop’s requiem. Do you see what you have discovered? There is no way of bearing the thing home without becoming an august and sacred figure–without being yourself carried back to Adam, the first King and Priest.

It’s been a busy couple of weeks in which I have at times felt a bit stretched and overcommitted with the responsibilities in which I’ve wrapped myself, but when I read that on the bus on Monday, the disordered cogs inside me seemed to fall into place and tick contentedly. A couple years ago, I stopped recording my days because there was too much to bear, because I was in rebellion against it all. And when I final began to journal again it was because I felt feather-light, unbound. But now, I feel heavy again, and I know that feeling is here to stay. But though I am heavy, I am no longer lost. I am bearing joys and weights on purpose now–the difference is in intent. I must carry my sticks and marsh reeds not as if I am a slave, but as if I am a solemn child, as if I am royalty holding in my hands what is sacred. And at the end of each day I will add them to the growing stores of my journal–a chronicle of the piercing and persistent grace of God.

 

Practicing Resurrection

On Tuesday, I will finish my second semester of grad school and on Wednesday I will turn twenty-seven, which my sister and I used to joke was the age of perfection. It was a funny joke back then, and, frankly, is an even funnier joke now.

Last year on my birthday I wore a pink dress and it bucketed rain. It came down in a long morning deluge which made everyone grumpy. Then, in the afternoon, my fourth period students threw me a surprise party which I did not manage to be surprised by, complete with hats, a shiny balloon, and a cookie cake. My fifth period, not to be outdone, hastily ordered pizza. (My erstwhile birth functioned as an excellent excuse for all sorts of distractions.) I wanted to hug all of them, but I didn’t. I just smiled. It was an odd day and a good day.

The year and the ground which have passed under my feet in the interim have been dizzying. A few times in the last week in particular, as I have reflected, I have wanted to pinch myself—maybe I actually physically have pinched myself once or twice. (I can’t remember.) Is all this real? Did I really run away from home, and begin to do new things one after another in such rapid succession till it became habit? I want to check the mirror sometimes. Am I the same person? Are my eyes still brown, and when did the fear behind them stop running the show every day?

My rate of change over the last eight months has perhaps been privately alarming, but it is also much more than that. I found myself telling a friend the other day that being here, at Regent, in Vancouver, in a place which tastes different on my tongue and sounds different to my ears, something about it makes me actually want to heal. Not just make agreeable noises and blog entries, but take my hands away from the festering parts of myself which I’ve been covering, and say, “Alright, Lord. Come in at long last. Come in and perform the alchemy. Make me new, though for all my talk of Spring, I’m not even sure what that means.”

I’ve lived a fair number of Easter Sundays by now, have remembered the Resurrection over and over, but this one is softly special. I don’t just believe the promise of new life today—I want it.

Why do you seek the living among the dead?

Rise heart; thy Lord is risen.