This Thanksgiving Quiet

The sun is not out and probably won’t be today. When I look out my window I can see pine needles on grey-white sky.

Since I live in Canada now I already had one Thanksgiving, back in October, though several Canadians confidently assured me the two Thanksgivings are “about different things.” (I repeated this to a friend from home and she snorted and said, “What, their Thanksgiving isn’t about being thankful?”)

And when I think back over the Thanksgivings of the last couple years (proper, American Thanksgivings) I am aware of how unsettled and lost I felt. Thankfulness was part of the duty of the day, certainly, but I remember how the larger task felt like simply keeping my head up, doing the next thing.

But now I am here, many weights have fallen away, and again it is Thanksgiving. The day feels set apart, more sabbath than Sabbath. I have no real plans, least of all any involving a big turkey dinner, and that’s at least partially by design.

I will read and I will sit very still. These things both fall neatly within my skill set, but I don’t often do them on purpose, so today I will take a corner: a corner of time, a corner of space, to think on the largeness of God.

His reach is vast. It extends back to those blurred, painful Thanksgivings and forward to those I cannot see. It extends round the world and back home again to all the hidden places I know and love and to those I cannot imagine. Why, his reach extends even into the caverns of the human heart.

I am thankful for the light.

Homemaking

Today, I have been in Vancouver for three months, but it feels like much, much longer. October contained about six months in it. Six good months.

I have been making things: poems, dinner, friends, outfits that might have too much color, Hebrew flashcards, displays of advent readings to go up all around Regent.

I have also been beginning to learn not to make some things: definite plans for next term and the rest of my life, arbitrary childish boundaries set around who I talk to and where I go, excuses.

For various reasons, some of which have to do with the words and images that crowd through my head while I lie trying to sleep and some of which have to do with more official, public spaces like class readings and lectures, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about God’s makerness and my makerness in connection to it. The Lord makes things—he made me—in fact, I think he made me to make things. But it is so very, very easy to take what he has given and usurp it: to dismantle it and set about constructing Babel with great and hurried diligence, when what was called for was an altar.

I am always writing a story that I want to be true. I am forever deciding who I should be and how that should happen: my brain is always ticking full of dialogue that will never be said, I float the people around me into the narrative on carefully articulated sub-plots, and sketch out the peaceful house where I may never live, all with the goal of creating the glowing woman I want to one day wake up as. At best this is dreaming, at worst idolatry.

And I’ve been doing it for a long time, too. In eighth grade I developed an enormous crush on Skandar Keynes, who played Edmund in the Narnia movies, if you’re not familiar. (There’s no reason at all why you should be.) I drew out a careful timeline of our impending relationship, which part of me genuinely believed—I can be a pretty convincing storyteller. It began with his sudden, imminent move from England to North Carolina and culminated in our marriage at the age of seventeen, at which I wore a multi-colored ball gown. So that’s another thing: I’m not patient.

I would like to write the story myself and I would like it to begin tomorrow, on time please. When it doesn’t, I castigate myself. I must have made a misstep, so it’s back to the drawing-board to find the error and rewrite, rewrite, make it perfect. Probably the most terrifying thing about my decision to move to Vancouver was that I was throwing away the entire script. I was leaving everything I thought I’d do, and everyone I’d ever known. A kind of empty dread filled me some days when I thought about going, but I knew I had to be free of the structure of expectations I’d created for myself. I had to burn it, reduce it to ashes, step out through the smoke into the open air.

Now that I am settling here, though, I keep catching myself starting new drafts for this new home, trying to set things in stone very quickly about how this all will be: how long my degree will take, who I will know, how I will live, what songs I will sing, and what words I will write. I think I often associate being able to feel truly at home with how quickly my own scaffolding of control rises into the air around me—so what if it begins to block the sun? It keeps me safe.

I wrote a month or two ago that God brought me here. And he did. But I keep forgetting. I keep forgetting that not only did he make me but he made this home and the people in it. I bear none of the responsibility for the goodness of this place, nor can I claim it.

Reading Week is beginning and yesterday I helped decorate the school for Christmas. To string the lights back and forth across the tall atrium we attempted to use a tall paint roller with an extra handle taped to the bottom, so it would leisurely unspool from one spot to another. It was not leisurely. The roller either would not turn or turned too fast, standing on the upper level I couldn’t hear the directions that they called, and more than once we dropped tangles of lights practically on top of innocent bystanders. I trotted back and forth in the bright sunshine from one side of the mezzanine to the other till I began to sweat. I would not have written that scene with any of those details, but we laughed, and now the lights are glowing.

And last night I ended up sitting on a couch, dripping with sharp, tired tears while three friends sat close and prayed. I would not have written this scene at all. All I did was sit, suddenly surrounded and warm. But they prayed for me like they knew me.

My Lord is so much more gracious than I am.

Train Tickets

One of the only books I had space to bring with me from North Carolina was Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, and a few weeks ago, my housemate and I started reading it aloud after dinner, but very gradually because we are often busy. And more than once while reading, I’ve found a lump in my throat that I must push down and push down again.

In the second chapter, young Corrie sees death for the first time when visiting a neighbor and is terrified, most particularly that she will lose her parents like this. Her father gently asks her, When you and I go to Amsterdam–when do I give you your ticket? And she admits, Why, just before we get on the train. He wants her to know that God gives us things only when we need them. Certainly he gives fish instead of snakes and bread instead of stones, but he doesn’t stockpile the bread and fish up around us to go stale and rot. Instead he.places them fresh into our empty hands at the moment we are most hungry for them.

For the adult Corrie of most of the novel, the train tickets God gives her one by one are to deal with the horrors she will witness and experience. I am not experiencing horrors or even hardships, but learning in small ways is learning too. Moving here has been overwhelmingly full of blessing, as I knew deep-down it would be, partially because in so much newness I can’t possibly see more than a step in front of me, so I can’t possibly plan my life the way I did in Greensboro. And as I inhale sharp gulps of fresh air which I sometimes don’t know how to take into my lungs, how to begin to eke the oxygen out of, I have had to rely on those train tickets, one by one.

And this week it was George Herbert’s “Love III.” I can’t say that I found it, more that it found me:

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.

“A guest,” I answered, “worthy to be here”:
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.

I’ve known this poem since I was small, from my dad’s little pocket Temple, but it hit me with great force on Wednesday night: knocked me down and lifted me up again. And I don’t think I’ll ever fully comprehend its meaning. In fact, I don’t think Herbert did, either. He, too, was only human. We only begin to understand, but we must keep beginning, over and over.

The line that I wrote on my arm to remember was one of Love’s: “And know you not who bore the blame?” But the one that kept echoing in my head all Thursday morning was the speaker’s petulantly self-flagellating excuse: “Let my shame go where it doth deserve.” Strangely, it was not repeating itself in my own voice, or even Herbert’s. They were still, small words that kept saying, gently, but authoritatively: Let your shame go where it doth deserve. And it meant something quite different than when I say something like that to myself. Instead of implying that I ought to be wrapping myself in my sin like a comforting, moldy blanket and traipsing off to Sheol because that’s where I belong, this whisper meant that I am not my shame and guilt, that I am a made, loved creature, and that Christ bore the blame, lifted the weight off my shoulders and onto his own so it could die. And I must stop clinging to it so that he can throw it far, far away, far as the east is from the west. Yes, let it go where it doth deserve…

You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good. Always.

 

Theology, Apple Sorting, and Starting at the Beginning

Apparently I’m into long titles again like I was when I was fifteen. It’s cool–don’t worry about it.

This past weekend was the second weekend of the food course I’m in and we spent Saturday afternoon at a little local harvest festival. For a while I ended up at a work station sorting apples that would be good for eating all winter long from the apples that were already bruised and marked and would be pressed into cider. At first it was just me and an older man. He sorted away and I tried to keep up. But after a few minutes a young boy came up who was maybe ten or eleven. My companion explained to him what we were doing, that when he found a nice one he should set it into the box carefully, but that he was welcome to toss all the bad apples into their cider bin as hard as he could. And so he did, with evident joy. He really put his shoulder into it, throwing each warped apple in overhand, thunck thunck thunck, but each time he found a good one he cradled it gently in his palm and laid it in the box like a sleeping baby. Then we returned to the thunck thunck thunck. I laughed and wondered if I should tell him how much I admired his confidence.

On the official permit from the Canadian government that’s stapled into my passport, it says that I’m here at this place, in this country, to study theology. But I haven’t talked much about that yet. And not just on here, I haven’t talked much about that at all, anywhere.

Everyone else seems to have come to Regent with hard theological questions or with some driving desire to grow and learn, but I came theologically content. I’ve been too busy questioning most everything else in the past year or two to question my Lord. So my engagement in most of my classes, both external and internal, has been minimal. Sometimes I do have thoughts–appreciation will wash over me in Old Testament, or some unnameable frustration will creep into my shoulders while I’m reading for the food course–but the last thing I want to do is share them. I don’t want to say anything till I’ve really thought it through, and thinking it through seems to take much longer with God than it did with poetry or stories.

So I do the readings. I write brief response papers. I study. I talk to new friends about anything except the course material. But term papers are creeping up and I’m realizing that my days of relieved passivity are over. The time is coming when I will have to attempt to prove something: prove something about God, his church, his world. The idea of doing this still seems laughable.

I mean, I’ve written plenty of papers. I’ve made arguments before. But usually this meant I would pick up a piece of literature, read it carefully–backwards and forwards, up and down– and then I’d express an opinion. I’d engage with the critics, sure, but mostly that was a polite nod to companions in reading. The real content of my paper came from the text itself. The reason I argued that Katherine in Taming of the Shrew was a product of her environment and that Petruchio actually offered her release from her role as resident hellion was not because of anything Shakespeare said, or Liz Taylor did, or anything that happened in the sixteenth century. I argued that because of Kate herself, and what I saw in the text, and what I knew about being human. I wasn’t trying to give some definitive answer–I was just talking about personhood, and relationships, and the way it sometimes feels to be alive.

But theology is different. There is an answer here. They call theology the queen of the sciences, so decisions we make have an impact, on ourselves at the very least. This is serious business. My moving to Vancouver was in many ways a move away from responsibility. Studenthood, I thought, is freeing thing. I didn’t comprehend that I’d simply be switching from making pronouncements on the writing ability of the fifteen-year-old in front of me to making pronouncements on the state of the universe itself. I’m probably making up mountains where really there are only molehills to surmount, but still. I’ve been feeling a bit daunted today about my step forward into this next big thing.

A few years ago I taught a particularly high energy (and sometimes unmanageable) group of juniors. It was a big class, filling every seat I had and there were lots of long legs and loud voices and excuses and bold questions. They made me laugh sometimes, but they also wore me out and reminded me of my own inadequacies. One day as I walked around the room at the beginning of class, wading through low levels of chaos to pass back an assignment, wondering to myself how I would cope, one of the boys looked up at me quizzically as I passed him. “Miss Hodgkins, did you just say ‘Lord, help’?”

I bit my lip. “Yes. Yes, I did.” Lord, help.

Receiving, Retreating, and Other Non-Contributions

The last summer I spent with my grandparents, right after I finished undergrad, is perhaps the one I remember most vividly. I came to Missouri in May and stayed straight through most of June, and one of the most painful moments was this: a sweet man from church came over one day and mowed the acre of front lawn, without pretense. I could have done it, of course, but he meant it as a gesture of kindness towards these good people for whom he had so much respect and affection.

My grandma didn’t see it that way, however. That afternoon in the kitchen she let loose to me about how unhappy she was. He had not asked, she said. Why would he do that? Why would he just show up? They didn’t need his help. In frustration, she repeated herself several times, more sharply with each go round. (To be fair to both of them, he may well have talked to her beforehand, and more than once, but her memory was slipping and slipping already.)

An hour or two later, as I sat up in my room reading, she climbed the stairs, the only time she did so all summer, and stood in my doorway on the verge of tears. She stood in my doorway, and with a tempest rising in her well-tested and stretched soul, she apologized to me. She said she knew she shouldn’t have spoken like that. She knew he probably meant well. But it was so hard. It was just so hard, Alice.

I sat on my bed, keenly aware of my dirty laundry scattered over the bright blue carpet and of my position as tenth of her nineteen grandchildren, middlest of the middling, and said in a near whisper, “Grandma, sometimes it’s good to accept help from other people.”

“But we’re the ones who help!” she said.

“I know,” I told her. “But sometimes that changes.”

Her world was spinning upside down.

I, too, want to contribute. When you are able to be the one who helps, you know you’re on solid ground, that something’s going right for you. To be the giver is reassuring. In my four years of teaching, I became a contributor. I was patient and I was reliable and I answered emails promptly. My desk was a mess, but my webpage was always up-to-date with homework assignments. I lent my students more paper and pencils than I should have when they came to class unprepared. I was comforted by my own regularity, and so, sometimes, were the kids. When they came in chaotic, I would be calm. All of us could count on that. Most of all, as a friend who’s still teaching said to me recently, I don’t know what I would do if people weren’t asking me questions all day. Miss Hodgkins, Miss Hodgkins, Miss Hodgkins

I’ve been asked plenty of questions here too, but they’re harder ones. Beyond Where are you from? and What program are you in? I keep getting, Why are you here? Have you found your people yet? What’s been the hardest thing? What do you find lifegiving? My most honest answers thus far have been: I don’t know, Maybe–I was hoping it might be you?, Answering these questions, and What?

Partly by birthright, and partly by dint of having taught teenagers, I have a slightly overdeveloped sense of the absurd, so all this makes me want to laugh. And of course, as I’ve had others here warn me, if you look someone straight in the eye as you answer, you also might cry. It happens. I’ve done it. (No surprise.) But laughter and tears aren’t bad options, and people are pretty forbearing. In fact almost everyone here is out-and-out pastoral (with good reason–it is theology school.) And as they speak to a first year, especially one who sometimes unwittingly gives off the impression of fragility, they are kind.

And this is the crux of the matter: people are kind. Not kind because they love me or appreciate me or need me or enjoy me. They are kind out of their own God-given goodness. Though I am technically the focus of these check-in conversations, I am not the motivating factor. God’s grace, active and moving, is all.

I was the one who helped, but sometimes that changes.

So suffice to say, my world, like my grandmother’s, is spinning upside down. In a million other ways I will never surpass her legacy: her hospitality, her faithfulness, her work ethic, her pie crust, but I can take a lesson with her here at least. So I am relearning, for the thousandth time, how one accepts grace with humility.

I had reasons for moving and coming to this school, but most of the time I don’t remember them anymore, and when I do, they don’t seem very important. Out of the first five weekends of this term I will have spent four of them away on various retreats and course outings. It is occasionally exhausting to spend such concentrated time with new people, but I am becoming sure of one thing: I am grateful to be here. I thought I intended this move, that I planned and orchestrated it, but in truth, the Lord did. I am here because he set me here. He intended this. I am meant to know this place, to know these people, but mostly, to know him.

Happiness is not everything, but I am happy.

Time Being New (and Time Being Old)

As of today, I have been in Vancouver for exactly a month, and I continue to gain bruises here and there from falling down things (like the stairs) and walking into things (like the table), which I suppose is proof that I’m not yet quite oriented.

I’m reaching the deeper level of homesickness now where I have a bank account and a bus pass and I’ve been to all my classes at least once, and even submitted a couple assignments, but when I see my former students pop up on social media on their class trip to Italy it feels like a welcome relief. To laugh to myself at their extra-polite smiles as a teacher takes their picture is much easier than reading the dozens of new faces, some with their own glazed expressions of fresh homesickness.

So what I am trying to tell you is that it’s hard to find some neat, coherent topic for a blog entry when everything is new. Everything is new except, of course, for all I bring with me: my loves, my habits, my fears, my socks, my memories, and my sweaters. Those things aren’t new at all. It feels like a Herculean task to marry the past and the future into the now, but in reality, it will happen on its own, so long as I let it. I will wake up one day and be comfortable.

But for now, as Auden says, I have “the Time Being to redeem from insignificance.”

So here are things to hold on to:

-I just did laundry, so I got to sleep between clean sheets last night.

-Everyone here, without exception, has been so kind.

-It is wonderful and a little nerve-racking to be writing for a grade again. It makes me feel like I’m growing.

-A couple days ago, when I ran into another first-year student at Regent, I said, “Oh hello, friend!” without even thinking.

-I have written two poems since I got here: a poem about life back home, and a poem about life here. The one that is currently nudging at the back of my skull is about the people around me now, so that’s a good sign. Onward and upward, through the “Land of Unlikeness”!

How I Came Here Collecting

Well, my dad has been looking forward to this entry, even if no one else has.

I am here. After five airports, four flights, going through security three times, checking my bags twice, and spending one night in the Regina airport, I arrived in Vancouver, full of vivid daydreams about what it would be like to finally wash my hair.

In retrospect, I feel as if I did very little to actually get myself here. It’s as if some months ago I wandered onto a wave, sat on its crest for a while, watching the sky and worrying, and then was suddenly deposited in this soft, smoky city in British Columbia. In fact, I can’t think of much I did besides buy a plane ticket. Lynn and Leslie bought me a clock, Elizabeth Roberts brought me peanut butter, Susan told me over and over how wonderful I was going to be, and then Mary and Lauren packed my bags.

I’ve been here for a little over a week now, and I’ve had lots of time to think. This has been a little overwhelming, but of course, that’s why I came here: to think. I came to think and to breathe and to store all my sentiments up in some sensible way, to gather up the particulars of my past and of my present and of the reality that stretches far, far beyond my horizons, and build a story out of them.

I’m finally accepting the fact that I’m a collector by nature. Once in college a friend affectionately informed me that I was sentimental. I remember being a little offended, because I rankled at the idea of some kind of painter-of-light, Emmeline Grangerford treacle, but that’s not really what she meant. I save things. I save papers and notes and t-shirts and books and old, deflated birthday balloons. I remember what people’s hands look like and how they hold their shoulders walking up and down stairs, and I remember the way my Grammy’s back breezeway smelled, like eucalyptus and old knit blankets and morning chill. I am a sentimentalist–I collect all these things.

This place is still very new to me, but so far I have collected a new appreciation for rooibos tea, a goose egg on my arm from falling down the stairs, and the rainforest. I have a bit of the tall, cool, brown-and-green BC rainforest in my pocket (or maybe I am in its pocket?)

More to come. Grace upon grace.

Seismic Shifts

In less than a week I move to Vancouver. This is the age of change, of the ground moving beneath my feet, but not mine only. Just in the last week or two there have been shifts around me as well: coming marriages, births, deaths, my dad turning sixty, my sister able to go back to London at long last, and two weddings to attend in the next three days. Time is always marching on, of course, but occasionally there are days when we actually feel that, in all its wind and its weight.

Last night my family had a goodbye party for me, which was very sweet. Many kind people prayed for me and we ate chocolate mousse and drank what rosé there was in the house so my parents wouldn’t be stuck with it.

Then afterwards I couldn’t sleep, maybe because all the changing and churning of the world beneath me had gotten into my bones and was making them ache. I don’t know exactly. But I got up and read the beginning of the book of Matthew.

It starts with a list of genealogies: marriages, births, deaths, tectonic plates grating against one another as the earth turns round and round, and then it announces the coming of Christ.

An angel arrives and tells Joseph that everything Mary has been saying is true: she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins. Beneath the heaving, quaking breaths the earth keeps taking, there is a fiery core, a binding promise, a wonder: He will save his people from their sins.

Chaff and Wind in the Summer

Last week I took a trip up through Ohio and into Pennsylvania. It was a quiet trip. I drove alone, listening to melancholy audiobooks, and then stayed a few nights each with good friends. The most exciting outings included Hobby Lobby and blueberry picking with a three-year-old. As I told someone just recently, I’m not much of a do-er. I’m a talker and a be-er, for better or for worse. So this was a really lovely trip.

I trod familiar college ground all week long, both literally and figuratively. Every friend I saw was someone who met and became important to me during college. People tend to talk in hackneyed terms about living life in chapters, and it felt appropriate to re-live such a neatly defined previous chapter as I’m about to step out into a brand-new one.

So on Thursday and Friday, I wandered around campus and its environs, stopping to gaze at very particular doors and windows behind which I remembered doing most of my living. I wanted to have some rush of feelings but felt a little disconnected from those four years, though I knew they grew me up. As for the friends I was in the midst of visiting and our long conversations, they were wonderful-wonderful, but those friendships have outgrown college in many ways, which, I told myself, can only be a good thing. I like these new conversations about marriage and motherhood and a home that’s distinctly yours, even if I’m not there yet myself.

But I continued to walk around campus, because I knew I owed it to the place. I took myself into the main classroom building to see if anyone was there, though Grove City doesn’t have summer classes. As I climbed the central staircase, for a brief moment I breathed in some old anxiety hanging in the air, as if I were wearing a backpack again, aware I hadn’t read well enough for the quiz I was about to take, running lists of names and terms in my head, surrounded by a crush of other students moving past me in the ten minutes between morning classes, choruses of wet snow boots squeaking on the slick floors. Funnily, it’s an anxiety I don’t remember feeling, but yet there was its ghost, moving eerily around my midriff, so it must have existed.

The overwhelming majority of things I remember from college are good (thus why I wanted to come back and visit): long meals with friends, sometimes cooked with our own hands, rambling walks down Pinchalong, methodically pacing the stacks whenever I had a paper to write, sitting in the dark nave of the chapel during Thursday night Warriors, teaching myself on icy-cold walks to class to look up even though everyone else looked down. I do remember some hard things: tears, humiliations, hurts that stung. I remember them because I learned from them, though, because they turned out to be important.

But that hazy, anxious feeling I wandered into on the stairs last week was not important, so I walked through it and up out of it onto the second floor toward the English department, where I ran into a favorite professor and we sat down and talked, not about the old days, but about the way things are now.

We cannot carry our whole pasts in our hands, so the wind blows the chaff away, and the memories left to us are manageable. I have been nervous about this move out west because of the looming, but as-yet unseen, challenges and pains I know it will present, but the great North Wind will continue to blow and blow and blow, and I will manage the gifts given to me, one by one by one.

Heartland

Last Friday, I got home from what turned out to be a whirlwind tour of the American midwest. I was gone for only about a week and a half and in that time managed Dayton (sort of), Chicago, the Iron Range, Minneapolis, Madison, and Indianapolis (kind of).

We drove a lot. I drove a lot. On the days when it wasn’t just me in the car, and I had a back up driver roster one or more family members deep, I spent a lot of time staring at my dad’s big road atlas. I’ve always done this. From the time I was probably seven or eight I spent a lot of time on family trips leaning forward from the cramped back seat of our little minivan and asking for the atlas. It was the way we all avoided “Are we there yet?” Look–here–see for yourself–then you tell me.

For me this habit grew into a love of knowing where I am, of placing myself. I look at the map of where I am, where I’m headed, where I came from, and I trace the blue interstates that connect them like arteries, but once I’ve done that, I still don’t put the atlas down. I’ve learned to go farther afield. And this time around, beginning with British Columbia, of course, I ran my fingers over Canada: the heavy pockets of civilization in the south, thinning out into the stark ranges of the north. (Did you know that not only does Nunavut have no road access in from other provinces, but there is no reliable system of roads between its towns and settlements? Most of it is above the timber line, and you have no choice but to fly in.)

Looking at Canada for very long scared me, though. In a month and a half I am moving to the other side of a notably large continent. The bed I will be sleeping in is just under three thousand miles from the one I’m sleeping in now. I checked. And all that space scares me.

But of course the land that lies between is not just some unknowable, disembodied thing. I can know it–I do know it.

Last Thursday I left friends in Madison to head towards more friends (and my sister) just north of Indianapolis. I spent the first hour or so winding around on back roads in southern Wisconsin, and then glanced down at my phone and realized I had it set on “avoid tolls.” (Despite all my talk about the atlas, Google Maps is just easier when I’m alone.) But I didn’t mind. I accepted my fate even though it would take more gas and more time and once or twice included a gravel road. It was a hot day and the sky was very blue and the cornfields were very green.  For that first stretch, I rarely saw another car and drove on highways with letters for names. The houses and shining metal outbuildings I passed seemed settled in the soil, basking in the sun.

A few times recently I’ve found myself fancifully telling some patient listener that the British countryside (particularly what we walked through in Wales last summer) is the landscape of my soul. But as I drove those summer midwest roads I kept thinking of the commercials I used to see when my Missouri grandma would turn on the news as she cooked dinner, commercials for regional chains like Menards, boomingly announcing their home as America’s Heartland, and I know this seems silly, but for me it is. The midwest is the land of my heart. (I don’t know what this makes North Carolina–the land of my skin, the largest organ, the place I surround myself with? But I digress…)

Of course, the vast majority of my time in the midwest was spent in north central Missouri when my grandparents were still alive, and at no point on this trip did I set foot on its poor-cousin-of-Iowa soil. Instead I wandered through states which I mostly don’t know very well for themselves. But it all felt familiar.

Outside of Dayton my mom and Mary and I took a walk near our hotel and when everything dissolved to rain, we cut back through the parking lot single file, along one curb after another like children, our umbrellas held out for balance under the wide grey sky.

In Chicago we walked around U of C, trying to find the room where my parents first met. We never did find it, which perhaps made poetic sense, because it was called the Nonesuch Room.

The highways we drove were sporadically flanked with those monstrous, calm white windmills, and chains like Culver’s and A&W’s where my grandpa liked to stop to have a chocolate malted for dinner. I had never been down these particular roads before, but they tasted like home and my heart beat to the rhythm of tires on asphalt.

Of course I don’t mean to idealize the Midwest too much. After all, it was at a rest stop in Kansas when I was ten or eleven that I saw a Wanted poster for a sex offender who had escaped from state prison in the area, and then barely slept for the next few nights because I was fearfully processing the existence of human evil, perhaps for the first time. I could still give you a description of the tattoo on his chest. But the presence of wickedness does not negate the perseverance of good, and the heart beats on, yearning–sometimes self-consciously–for redemption.

After I walked out of my classroom for the last time in early June, I went downstairs with my last boxful of papers and books and told my friend that I felt a bit naked. I was leaving behind the teacher, the Miss Hodgkins, in the corner on the floor, and was stepping back out as only Alice. That’s how I left for the Midwest, stripped and small. The original point of the trip was my cousin’s wedding up way north of Duluth and the first night we got there, Mary and I went to the last evening campfire program of teen camp. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, and we stayed for the whole thing as dusk slowly set in. Along with lots of laborious prize-giving for verses memorized and games won, we sang worship songs, and one in particular, which is notably not a favorite, stuck to my ribs. Every chorus ended with the line “Look to the sky!” And when I looked to the sky my uncomfortable nakedness and exposure, my unsteady weakness made sense. I fit, a small child in an immense and well-worn palm. I was at peace. The next night, I danced barefoot in the grass alongside my siblings and cousins because Joe and Becky were married and the sky was great above us.

I am still anxious when I think of August when I will get on a plane alone and spend a day suspended in the air between two places, but if I look down at those first flyover states I will see a place that has the power to make me calm. A place of ice cream and gravel, of dry bones and rich soil, of green-brown openness fading grey in the twilight, where they look their dead hard in the face before they bury them. It’s a place I know as well as my own breathing, that’s as close to me as the thumping chambers of my own heart.

Die before you die. There is no chance after.