On Unwasted Time

Today I met up with a friend and she gave me a bag with four or five hand-me-down dresses. A few hours later, at home, I tried them on and looked in the mirror and cried. I think I can count on one hand the number of times in the last three months that I’ve worn a dress. It’s been so long since I felt pretty, since I felt like I was going somewhere. 

So far, this year has been hard to understand. I’m certain I’ve learned many things, but I don’t know what most of them are yet. (This is one of the reasons I write: to find out.) I’ve tried to make meaning out of this time: I’ve written five and half chapters of a novel, I’ve had long conversations which have settled comfortable and weary into the nooks and crannies of already-established friendships, I’ve read children’s books, recently-released novels, and the Psalms, I’ve stared at the sky.  I’ve been reasonably content. The safe, quiet rhythms of my day-to-day life have made this possible. And as I’ve sat within, outside of my small world things have happened, risings and fallings and lives and deaths.

The world is all sliced open right now, inside-out and raw, and God, it seems, has plans for that. We serve a no-waste God. You know how sometimes people say that they heard something somewhere once and it really stuck with them? Well, I heard that somewhere once and I wish it had stuck with me: we serve a no-waste God.

I’ve spent a lot of time in young adulthood, particularly while I was teaching, wondering if I were wasting my efforts, my energies, myself. I cared about my students enormously, yet that didn’t always translate into helpful action. I feel very often as if I sit at the center of a little self-made vortex of material and mental chaos, and, more than this, I still cannot seem to crack the code of how to love others well, of how to have the right thing to say in the right moment, of how to be enough but not too much. Ultimately, I’m often quietly uncertain if I’ve got the peg in the right hole, if what I’m doing with my days, my hours, my minutes is at all worthwhile.

But still, I remind myself of the line from that Sara Groves song, “love is still a worthy cause,” and I am persistent. I continue to gather up the scattered threads I find around me, and, focusing hard, I weave them together this way and that, aiming to get it right this time. This is what writers do and this is what try-ers do. We do not waste. We save it all.

Yet perhaps the impact of these strange times, the big, lasting, eternal meaning they will have to each of us as individuals, is not in some novel or lightning bolt or any other shining thing you or I are working so hard to keep the locusts from devouring. Perhaps instead we will find that the value in these months and years has been in the things even we did not think to save, in the edges and the discarded ends, the repeated pains, fears, and failed attempts. So that, at the last, we will find ourselves in front of the mirror, afternoon sun from the window on our cheeks, weeping in surprise that we have been clothed in glory which fits just-so, woven of familiar threads which it took divine hands months and years to gather.

A Few Things I’ve Needed to Hear Lately

-Most days you will wake up angry and sad. You will be angry about a sickness which we cannot see or, even months in, seem to understand as it creeps between us. You will be angry about the fear which now ripples beneath everyone’s skin and will continue to for a long time. You will be angry that you can’t be home in sticky North Carolina heat this summer, even for a week. You will be angry that you can’t hug your friends. You will be angry about the price of cheese. You will be angry that you need to put away your laundry. You will be angry that the sun is out. 

It will be tempting to try to fix this anger, but you can’t. It will keep happening nearly every morning. What you can do is sit on the floor, which is oddly comforting. You can have a cry and put away the laundry. The sunshine will seem more friendly by midday. Buy the cheese anyway.

 

-The presence of the people you can be with physically and the effort of talking with the people you can’t is not just some time-filler or coping mechanism. Even when conversations are marked by uncertainty and anxiety and vague fatigue, there is something lasting building at their core, some kind of tough relational metal which can only be forged in circumstances of earnest, shared precariousness. These persistent conversations and interactions have more goodness than you know hidden in their quiet, circuitous frustrations.

Really, you and the people around you, the people you care about, have been given specifically to one another in this moment. So watch out for them, cheer for them, be patient with them. And when you fall down on the job, get up and try again tomorrow. It will be okay.

 

-Slow down. Breathe the good air. Listen to rain on the roof when it comes. Let that be your only plan sometimes. One truth this experience is obstinately handing to many of us, over and over, is our own creatureliness. We cannot have it all or do it all, we cannot set up the perfect system for our worldwide operations or even for our own daily life that will protect us from human frailty. We are severely limited. In fact, we are utterly dependent on those around us, and, more than that, on the Maker who breathed and loved us into being. 

And that’s unabashedly good news. Sure, the fear crawls beneath your skin, you keep waking up angry, and you’re almost always tired when you hang up the phone, but you are the precious child, the needy child, of a Creator who delights to be needed, who made this world not for you conform to it or conquer it or shrink from it, but that you might abide in and with the fruits of his labor and his joy. So go ahead, kiddo, be small today.

Quarantine Sundays

I spent the last week trying to pull together an entry that was really high-minded and meaningful, but then trashed it in favor of what follows. Sorry. In some ways, this one is more for my own personal future reference than for any outside readership.

I look back over the last weeks of my journal and I find there is a pattern. I realize that Sundays have usually been the hardest.

I’ve never been good at sabbath. I procrastinate too much all the other days, and my work has always seemed to bleed over, so I’ve never really learned to treat it as something special in the way I ought. But now the world is holding its breath and things move so slow (when things move at all) that I find even when I’ve spent ample amounts of time dawdling all week, I can afford to have a mostly free day on Sunday. 

And these still Sundays are hard days. I feel waterlogged, crumpled into myself, bogged down with tired. Within the extra quiet my fears get loud and so I journal and I read and I watch sitcoms and I call my mom and I sit on the floor and look at the sky out the window. And I know I could go for a walk, but I did that yesterday. (I’m sure Vancouver is always beautiful in the spring, but I strongly suspect that it has never before been as beautiful as it was this past week.) Finally, I think to myself that this rest thing is frankly pretty exhausting and I might need to spend the next several days recovering from it.

My church service is in the evening, and when I do at last sit down for that with my housemates, it helps. It honestly does. In a way that I cannot always manage to choose on my own, it takes me gently by the shoulders and guides me a few steps backwards so my view’s a little wider. Don’t look so close, honey, it whispers.

Backing up is often frightening. I am increasingly realizing that I don’t like the unknown. I’d rather lean into the here and now, my nose close to the glass of it, peering around for decisions I can make which will help me feel safe, for things I can control. So at first when I back up I shiver because I look in both directions and all I see is blankness and more uncertainty. I don’t know what will come next in my life now, and I don’t know how much any of those other things I did a couple months ago in the other lifetime really mattered, so I end up feeling a bit like Ozymandias with the barren sands of time stretching out on either side.

But if I stay backed up just a little longer, if I dig my toes into those sands and take a few deep breaths of fresh air, I begin to remember that my constantly-droning inner monologue is not the only voice in existence, that it is not always the infallible truth-teller I imagine it to be. And I perhaps remember that, faithful as he’s always been, the Lord holds his tired, befuddled children in his hands, even on quarantine Sundays.

Gentlenesses

I’ve slowed down a lot in the last week or so. I’m still plugging away at schoolwork and even turned in a couple assignments today (!!!) but many things are an effort. They’re an effort I am willing to make, but now—like perhaps many of you—I am encased in molasses rather than air. I’ve gone into half-hibernation.

On Saturday I read some Wendell Berry stories for a class. I hadn’t read any of his fiction in years, though I’ve gone around enthusiastically criticizing it to many people, so this was a humbling experience. I still think his work is far from perfect: he rambles, he tells rather than shows, he moralizes too obviously, and yet in each of the four stories there was some moment at which I caught my breath, at which he whispered something obvious and gentle and I ached for it. Funnily, this softness had always been the reason for my disdain. I am, deep within myself, decidedly sharp-tongued and in literature have always taken pleasure in the absurd, in the uncomfortable, in the narrator who’s just a bit biting and takes no prisoners. Yet the gooey corners of Berry’s limping stories kept wandering into my heart and giving it rest in a way it hadn’t had in weeks.

I’ve recently begun to notice this gentleness everywhere I can possibly encounter it: in the patient calm of other customers at the grocery store, in softly querying texts from friends, in the easy quiet of my housemates, in sun on pavement just beginning to be dappled with spring leaves. I subsist on it, I breathe it in.

A rare sincerity seems to permeate so much of our culture right now because of shared crisis. It’s a quality which has the potential too easily to become saccharine or shrill or moralizing, but which also presents us with perhaps more opportunity than we’ve ever had to become the meek and the pure in heart, to inherit the earth and see God.

I am often nowadays uncertain about what to do, what should be done, what can be done. I hate being uncertain. But I am reminded by Berry—and by others who are perhaps nearer and dearer—that gentleness is within all of our capacity. So be gentle in thought, in word, in deed. Be gentle in prayer. Be gentle when you see your own unaccountably tired eyes in the mirror, when you see loved faces pixelated on a screen, when your newsfeed fills with fright and noise. Be gentle. Other efforts we make may fade, but this will last. Gentleness takes pause, biting your tongue, backing up and trying again, but I sometimes think it is the greatest power we have at our disposal, right now and always.

Perhaps gentleness—steadfast, unyielding tenderness—is one of the strongest forces we have against evil, against pain, against hysteria, against fear itself. It does not defeat these things, rather it dissolves them. It simply makes weapons drop when it appears on a battlefield.

I became convinced during my years teaching (and have occasionally been reminded during my time at Regent) that it is not the gentle who need gentleness the most. It is the sharp and recalcitrant, the ones who have forgotten that it is possible to speak or be spoken to with mercy, the ones with the sometime hearts of stone. In other words, it’s each of us.

Fear and Gardens in Pandemic-Time

It has been raining here all week, in the way that Vancouver does—gradually, quietly, uncertainly—but the other day my housemate began to resuscitate the front garden. She cleared out pine needles and tied the ivy back from rows of big blue planter pots. The puppy assisted vigilantly, mostly by getting muddy. Everyone was glad. There are plans, I think, for much more of the same.

And yet we are still tired here, still anxious, sometimes still downright sad and afraid. The days are full of these ups and downs. Vacillating wildly between worried paralysis and easy distractions from it seems to be the new mode of existence for so many of us, but it can’t possibly be what we’re called to. I think perhaps our central question comes down to this: How do we manage in these conditions? What does it mean to live abundantly when fear has come to dwell so obviously among us?

A coherent answer to that question seems almost impossible to me, and perhaps to you. But while watching Christina beam over her work in the garden, I remembered something I wrote a few years ago, and I’ve decided it’s time I preach to myself. It’s an entry called “Permission to Fear,” and I wrote it during my first year of teaching, many lifetimes ago. 

So on the advice of my 22-year-old self I’m going to have a talk with my fear, with our fear. Fine, I know you’re here for a while, I will say. Here’s a chair. Have a seat somewhere out of the way. If you have something to say, I suppose you may say it, but don’t be surprised if I say something right back. And even then, don’t get too comfortable. You’re not here to stay forever. Then, with this strange new house-guest in my heart, I will wash my hands and I will do the next thing.

I idly asked for watercolors the other day and an hour or two ago, Christina unearthed an old art set in her closet and presented it triumphantly at my bedroom door. So there is a next thing. Wherever we find gardens now, we will tend them: the bread that needs baking, the herbs that need growing, the Zoom meetings that need having, the toilets that need cleaning, the children that need bathing, the piano that needs playing, the friends that need calling, the poem that needs writing, the prayers that need praying.

So tend to these things—gradually, quietly, uncertainly. Sow these seeds, and sow them while weeping if need be. That is scriptural. The psalmist says those who sow with tears will reap with joy, so perhaps there is even particular holiness and blessing to living on this razor’s edge to which God has led us. Tears, after all, will water the earth.

Yesterday a work crew was out in our little neighborhood, trimming the plum trees. When I came downstairs I found that Melanie had gone after and collected the cut branches that they would have mulched—armfuls and armfuls of them it seemed like—and was arranging them in every vase she could find. The little blue kitchen was full of pink blossoms every way I looked.