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.

The Indigestible Portions

I’m probably about to get all kinds of poetry on you. (But please don’t go away just yet. Hear me out.)

I am tired and achy at the moment. We could blame it somewhat fairly on last night’s restless sleep, but at the core is the fact that I’ve had an anxious week and my body knows it. Some days the sky is blue and I wear sparkly shoes because I like them, but other days, though the sky is still blue, I wear sparkly shoes because I need them and much of my energy goes into managing and dismantling my fear, trying to move past it so I can function. More than ever recently, I’ve become aware of the myriad of coping strategies I’ve developed to deal with everyday anxieties.

When I was eleven I made up a trick I sometimes still use. When I felt overwhelmed I would take a piece of paper and draw and label a little cloud for each of my worries–size and darkness corresponding to the intensity of each. I found that when I did this, put them out on paper visually, there were always fewer of them than I had assumed.

In college, to get out of bed on hard days I would promise myself that I could wear an oversized flannel, that I could put no effort into my appearance and play-act as the Invisible Girl, if only I would get up and go to class.

Even this past Fall, when I first moved to Vancouver, I was still adding strategies to my arsenal. I was irrationally nervous about riding the city bus, and so for the first few days, every time I waited at a bus stop I took a picture of my feet, so that my camera roll would fill up with growing evidence that I had done this before and I could do it again.

Every one of the aforementioned strategies have worked and still work when I need them. I am oddly proud of all the little ways I’ve come up with to chant to myself, “Be brave, be brave, and be brave.” It’s quite possible you have a similar list yourself.

But.

It is Lent now. We are in a season in which we are supposed to remember our own mortality, to feel death in our bones and pray to understand what that means. So I have found myself thinking that while bravery is good and well, it is perhaps also good and well to sit and learn from my own frailty. When my hands begin to shake, as they have a couple times this week, perhaps instead of sitting on them so they will stop and no one will notice, I can look at them and remember the dust from whence they were formed. In the stillness of the weeks leading up to our celebration of Christ’s deafening acts of redemption and renewal, maybe this magnified anxiety is not a curse, but an appropriate reminder of my need.

In my Christian Imagination class a couple days ago we read Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday.” He is mournful and acutely aware of his limits, his lack of answers, his lack of any sufficient words at all. The liturgy of any traditional Ash Wednesday service is full of the same heavy truths Eliot has felt all his life, full of the angst of Prufrock’s “overwhelming question” from fifteen years earlier in his career. Yet in this first long poem after his conversion, everything is different because while Eliot sits in the void within himself, he knows the Word has come to fill it. The Gospel gives context to the weakness he has always known so intimately. And conversely, Eliot’s long fixation with human lack and the inadequacy of his own speech has fit him with ears to hear the words of Him who is greater.

So sure, those pictures of my feet back in August bear witness that I have done this before, that riding the bus is really not such a big deal, but if I am being honest, perhaps even more importantly, they bear witness to the truth that I was afraid. I was foolishly afraid of something I could not name, which never came to fruition. Those pictures chronicle how I am riddled with sin, riddled with holes, ultimately unable, despite all my little tricks, to cope with the “indigestible portions” of my human soul.

And last night I read the end of Revelation, full of lines which deserve to be shouted, which have been and will be, all about newness, over and over. He is making all things new. Those words are always true whoever and wherever you are, but it is the infirm sinner, silent and barren, who really feels their power.

Empowerment, Selfishness, and Loneliness

We live in funny times. Several years ago I was in a school library when an older woman came in, and I overheard her adamantly announce to the librarian that she wanted to donate books with a specific message: empowerment for women. I remember thinking that books with a “message” sounded boring. Who would read them?

But I must have been wrong, because the narrative has grown and become ingrained. We’ve been told to break the last of the ties that bind us, to have it all, to say yes, to say no, to change the world, to lean in. We’ve been told that we can. And, of course, because we can we should.

We do not need anyone else but ourselves to succeed, because You is kind, you is smart, you is important. Follow your heart and go with your gut. And so, wherever we are and whatever we want, we are true to ourselves, following the dubious wisdom of a Shakespearean lord who gets murdered through a curtain. We dig deep, find hidden reserves, and realize that we’re capable of much more than we ever knew. On our own strength, which is at times considerable, we rise.

We’re not cruel, of course. We don’t step on others’ faces as we climb past them—we’re not willing for their heads to bruise our heels—but we do leave them behind. This is our journey, not theirs, this journey further up and further out, where no one has ever been before. We’re not making decisions based on what others want anymore—we’re basing our decisions on what we want! This makes us feel powerful. We begin to glow.

And then one day we wake up to find ourselves alone. Even if the dream we were chasing was in service of others, we have not wanted to rely on their help to get there. To accept, or—God forbid—ask for help would have disproved all the stories we’re only just now managing to believe about our own capability. So it is just us here now. To be our brother or sister’s keeper would have gotten in the way of our hard-won self-sufficiency. Particularly when some brother or sister is not particularly kind or smart we have been trained, in self-preservation, to ignore the fact that they are still painfully, wretchedly important.

We’ve cut ourselves off and, in doing so, imbued ourselves with a loneliness that feels nearly impossible to recover from. It’s not just lonely at the top—it’s lonely to be a human with skin on. Hollywood makes movies about this. We are empowered, sure. But to reduce ourselves to bundles of self-made desires and shining abilities to fulfill those desires is just another funny roundabout way to dehumanization. Our deepest level of personhood does not exist in self-reliance, but in belonging.

I’ve made more generalities here than I know what to do with, and they’re all centrally based on the only subject I really have for study: myself. I’m thinking mainly about women because I am a woman, and I’m thinking mainly about millennials because, for better or for worse, I’m one of those too. But as usual, my driving purpose in writing all this is much the same as Ralph Ellison’s, something which is both a fear and a hope, cautious and bold: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”

Something Steady

I’m sitting in a room surrounded by half-unpacked suitcases. Sometimes, I feel as if that’s my constant state, even when I haven’t been travelling. Why is that?

Now that I’m back in Vancouver it feels like it’s properly the new year. The other day I wrote myself a list of things I wanted to accomplish and ways I wanted to grow in 2019. I wasn’t exactly digging deep–one of the entries was “get better at French-braiding”–but much more so than when I left Greensboro and moved here five months ago, I do feel like sitting down and taking stock.

Yesterday (was it only yesterday?) I subbed for the seventh grade humanities class at Caldwell. Around midday I realized that it was easier and more joyful than I had expected it to be. I don’t know why I was surprised by that, though. Especially in retrospect, I tend to focus on my weaknesses as a teacher, and I had them in spades, but I had strengths too. I was good at my job. And even if I never return to it, I’ve been marked by teaching, my heart scuffed all over with funny, seemingly-accidental marks that will not wear away. Those four years changed me. I grew.

I gained confidence, prudence, perspective, a greater ability to think on my feet, and a keen sense of my own limitations. But the greatest thing I learned was Love. I still know very little of it, but simply by necessity, because increasingly I realized there was no other way to view my students, I began to wade into the borderlands of that frighteningly bright place where you see the people around you as Christ sees them. Human faces there are drawn in bold lines, the image of God and the sin that mars it both clearly visible, and you know instinctively, without thoughts of either discouragement or heroism, that Love is the only power, the only recourse, the only cure. Plenty of times, certainly, I’ve tucked my tail between my legs and retreated back to the shadowlands of my own easy criticisms and lazy assumptions, but I had just enough lessons there that I can attest to this: that land is the only way through. As one of my grandma’s favorite little books was called: Love or Die.

I learned all of that without planning to. And now that I am in a new place and new season, what will I learn here? I find it very easy to ask that question with blissful, blind anticipation and then sit still, doing nothing, waiting for the answer to drop down out of the heavens into my lap. In fact, I do that far too often on this blog. And certainly, there are many things I can’t and am not meant to predict. God is sovereign and I am not. But at times the “I don’t like being in charge” part of my personality stretches to excess, and I fail to even take charge of myself.

When I first moved here one of the things I said quietly to myself (and probably wrote on some piece of paper somewhere) was that I wanted to grow in holiness, which often runs shallow in me. And that’s not exactly a minute task. So I am realizing that nearly half a year in perhaps it is time that I begin, that I stop floating and wandering and hoping I get somewhere, but start to walk in as straight of a line as I can manage, going somewhere on purpose. The Lord will be there all along the way. It’s not as if I’ll need to wait for him to catch up–he’s well ahead, Alice.

To that end I’m about halfway through a book about holiness. (Who knew I could be so practical?) And, as icing for my new goal-oriented self, I’ve set myself a very manageable little writing target for 2019: draft two full chapters of the new novel I’ve just started poking at. Oh, the terror and the joy!

So there. I’ve sat and I’ve taken stock and, by God’s grace, perhaps even made progress. Now to my gaping suitcases.

 

December Inventory

I have a little brown paper Moleskine journal that’s gone with me almost everywhere this semester. When I first got to Vancouver I titled it on the inside cover: “Bus Poems: From Between and For Between.” And a couple months later, I wrote a Chesterton quote on the front: “The greatest of poems is an inventory.”

I ended up only writing one poem about the bus, but from the most recent nearly-illegible scribblings in the notebook, I can at least give you an incomplete, three-part inventory of the last few days. Whether it will manage to perform like a poem for you, I don’t know, but living it has felt like meter and rhyme.

First, my semester at Regent ended in a great rushing swell of rain and essay exams, both of which I sort of enjoy. On Friday night I went to a celebratory Christmas potluck where there was lots of good food and more and more fond faces kept coming in through the door. I talked and laughed and drank wine and, as occasionally happens, transformed like a butterfly into something resembling an extrovert. One friend told me I looked so happy, another said she felt like I’d been at Regent forever, and then another looked at a wet spot where I’d been sitting and asked if I had peed a little, so that brought me back down to earth. (I hadn’t, to clarify.) When I left around ten o’clock so I could still catch the bus at a reasonable hour, for a moment or two I had a hard time finding my boots in the piles amassed around the coat rack. I stood still and took a deep breath, overwhelmed by all the shoes and the feet and the beating hearts and the laughing hands. Then I laced up my ancient, salt-stained Timberlands and walked warm into the cold.

Then, on Saturday evening, my plane touched down on American soil and I felt like crying, though I’ve never even been in Dallas before and it was only a short layover. I’ve only used my phone while on Wifi since I moved to Canada, and as we taxied into our gate and I turned off airplane mode for the first time in four months, I felt as if trumpets should be sounding somewhere. Keeping my phone on airplane mode, using it pretty much only at home and at school, has felt symbolic. A classmate from China asked me a couple months ago what I thought of the word “foreigner,” and I said that, so long as it was not cruelly meant, I actually liked it, because it accurately described my state. And the little airplane icon in the top corner of my screen has served the same purpose: marked me as a wanderer, an outsider, far-from-home. Because of that little symbol, from the get-go I knew I was not obligated to know the way, the words, all the answers. Yet, in the four steady months that that tiny sign of transience glowed there, I have, without even noticing, learned quite a few small lessons about belonging—belonging not because I have made myself a place, but because a place has been made for me, not because I know the way, the words, all the answers, but because I was lost and now am found.

And finally, last night, a few hours after getting back into town straight from a wedding in Texas, I went to Caldwell’s upper school Christmas concert. From the time I was a teenager, this yearly concert has been important to me, has placed a warm finger on some exposed part of my sternum, and two weeks ago when I told a friend in Vancouver that it was one of the first things I was going to get to do when I got home, I found myself in tears at just the thought. But when I arrived there last night, instead of weeping in gratitude, my heart simply short-circuited and then noiselessly imploded, again and again. I slid in right before it began and sat next to Leslie, who I hadn’t seen since June, back when everything was different for both of us (but mostly for her). We listened to the first couple of songs arm-in-arm, holding tight as we could till our shoulders went a bit numb. Look at all their little faces, I whispered giddily when the high school choir got up on the risers. And after that final Hallelujah Chorus, I began to hug people and call it good. Canada’s good. So good. It’s good to see you. So good. Over and over, on and on. I had expected to be overwhelmed with gratitude at God’s faithfulness to me in giving me so many precious souls in so many places, so many heaps of Blundstone boots in so many foyers, but when I got in bed that night, still thinking of the sweet coworkers I’d seen and the dozens of little faces, I realized I was grateful for something more. I am grateful for his faithfulness to each of them. Because he has been faithful and continues to be. I am certain of it. I saw it with my own eyes. He is faithful to the once deafeningly anxious boy who enthusiastically echoed my own So good when I asked about his school year and faithful to the tough, smart girl who grimaced and told me that her first semester of college was “an adjustment,” faithful to the kid who used to sneer and now seems to mainly smile and faithful to the tired friends whose faces are fresh with the loss of those who loved them best. He has been intimately present with each of these people, has placed a warm finger on exposed skin, has invited them in where they belong.

Morning by morning new mercies I see