Erring on the Side of Kindness

I’ve been grateful recently that in art, in the making of things, we have permission to be messy. I’ve been struggling the last few days to make myself sit down and write an entry here based on an idea I had about peace. But now I’ve deleted what I had and decided to tell you stories about my grandpa instead. He was, incidentally, probably the most peaceful person I’ve ever known.

When I was in college I spent most summers in Missouri with my mother’s parents. If you’ve hung around here long enough, you probably know that. One of the things I did, every Wednesday evening, was get in the car with my grandpa and drive him an hour southeast to a town called Moberly where he would lead a Bible study at the state penitentiary. I would sit in the local YMCA with my laptop to wait for him—it was the only time I got internet all week. As we drove we would listen to the radio or to the silence or sometimes, though he was a quiet man, Grandpa would talk. 

He told me about once when he’d driven himself to the prison and accidentally left the car running and the doors open when he went in, so that it looked like a getaway car. And he told me about his friend in the Air Force, David, who had been killed during training exercises at the end of the war. But one of the stories he told me most often was about a visit he made home to see his family when he was in college.

He went home for a weekend and visited his mother and aunt. His uncle, who was a bit of a drunk and the family black sheep, lived just across the street. This uncle happened to officially be on the outs with my grandpa’s mom and aunt the weekend he went home, so to keep the peace Grandpa didn’t go see him—just waved at him when he saw him sitting out on his porch. When the weekend was over, Grandpa went back to school, and not long after his uncle killed himself.

I’m sure my grandpa understood that his uncle’s death was not his fault, yet sixty years after the fact he repeated the story to his twenty-year-old granddaughter as if it had great hold on him. He knew he had not done what he ought. It was a story which I now suspect informed much of the rest of his life. I remember that when I started teaching, my mom advised me to always “err on the side of kindness” when dealing with my students. And that’s how he lived the rest of his life in full view of his seven children and exponential grandchildren: disregarding cruel feuds, generous to the point of seeming foolishness, willing to be taken advantage of by the least of these, erring on the side of kindness, salt and light.

The last summer I spent there, Grandpa, still his same gentle, faithful self, started seeing people who weren’t there. He saw children waiting in hot minivans who needed the door opened for them, strangers—perhaps hungry—approaching the kitchen across the back field, a boy sleeping at the end of his own bed who needed a warmer blanket. He always brought our attention to their presence in his soft voice, unwilling to make the mistake he’d made decades before, determined his uncle would not spend the afternoon alone on the porch.

But my favorite memory of my grandpa is perhaps my oldest. I was maybe five, and it was summer then too. The middle child of his middle child engulfed in a sea of visiting cousins, quiet and large-eyed. And he took me in his truck, just the two of us.

Our errand, I think, was to the slaughterhouse to pick up a side of beef that had fed on their land, but that doesn’t color my recollections. What I remember is tearing down Highway F, the little pick-up catching air at every bump. My grandpa loved speed. When we got to our destination he bought me a soda from the machine—I think it was orange—a treat which overwhelmed me. As we came back, I remember soaring over the hills once again, half-full can in the cup-holder and pop sloshing in my stomach. It’s been well over twenty years now, but I would live that ride again and again and again.

Manna and the Dreamers

As of this month, this blog is a whole ten years old and I had forgotten until last week. Life goes so fast and is sometimes so strange, but I am grateful. 

Once, in my presence, my mom mentioned my blog to a friend. “Oh, what does she write about on there?” the woman asked. “She writes about herself,” my mom said, ever matter-of-fact. It’s true. I do. And when I was eighteen and nineteen, it was even more so. I wrote about the minutiae of my small-town college life, dropping friends’ names and occasional inside jokes left, right, and center. As I’m sure is patently clear, I’ve become a very serious, cautious grown-up now, so I don’t do that anymore. I’ve moved on to larger visions.

And yet. This last month or two, I have had the urge to dream big about things—about the future, about my writing, about the world in which we live. It’s an exhilarating feeling, but all this time I have been tethered by the practical and sometimes frustrating realities of my current circumstances: the closed borders, the anemic bank balances, the incorrigible uncertainties. When I was about sixteen I went through a particularly quixotic phase in which I liked to assign colors to my days when I wrote about them in my journal—and the worst of these, the days that were like regurgitated cardboard, were always tan. It is easy just now, when comparing this trudging time to the glitter of my dreams, to classify every day as tan. But to do so would not be fair or true. Because there has been manna—small, perfect morsels fallen at my feet from heaven, day by day by day.

I spent a Sunday with the house to myself, listening to podcasts and cleaning the bathroom.

The fall leaves in Vancouver this year are gold and red, which I was prepared for, but also all sorts of ombres of orange and green and blushing pink, which I wasn’t.

The other day I used my black school bag for the first time since March.

Saturday night was the birthday party of a dear friend. We huddled outside around two firepits, roasted marshmallows which singed our fingers when we ate them, listened to and half-watched a long playlist of folk tunes on Youtube. We were very, very happy.

I ride the bus some days.

I spent an hour this morning pulling books from shelves for a much-anticipated guided study next term, until I had a tall pile.

And I’ve been rewatching some of the best TV ever made: Grand Designs and Mad Men—both of which turn me into Miss Rumphius when I finish an episode, eager to step out into the world and make it more beautiful, more beautiful with lupines or homes or words.

We know what manna is because Exodus tells us how God provided for his people in the desert. They were there much longer than they ever thought they would be, wandering round and round while hoping for the promised land through decades of wilderness, eating the sweet, particular nourishment which God sent straight out of the sky. And as they fed on it, they dreamed.

Real Life

These times we’re living in feel loomingly significant and deafeningly heavy. We repeat this to each other so solemnly, over and over, and I’m sure it’s true. Yet so many little human oddities carry on not above the fray, but beneath it: lives, deaths, wrong turns, wet rain boots, dog-eared pages, uncontrollable, hiccuping laughter.

When I took the job at the care home this summer it was partly, of course, because I needed work, but also because I had a hunch that I’d get to spend my days there inundated by human reality. I suspected that nothing there didn’t matter. And I was right, I think. For a place in which, by definition, everyone was pretty obviously dying, it was so full of life.

My first day, practically before I stepped through the front doors of the place I was informed of the current crisis: the cat was missing. He was named after a tropical fruit (as apparently all cats should be) and in his adventuring outside the bounds of the property had been rescued by a too-good Samaritan and brought all the way to the SPCA across town, from which he now needed to be retrieved. Operations were thrown into chaos by this development.

Sometimes I entertain myself by imagining a series I could one day write based on my time in that place. It would be a series not of blogs or short stories, but of children’s chapter books reminiscent somehow of both Junie B. Jones and The Boxcar Children. It could include Charles and the Email He Wanted Me to Send about the Denture Cream and Ice Cream Social: Why Even Bother with Flavors Other Than Butterscotch? as well as Marilyn Thinks Her Daughter Has Stolen Her Ring, Vol 17, Part 3, and the particularly well-beloved It’s Two O’Clock and Walter Is Asking How Long Till Supper! But even such illustrious works as these could not do justice to all the tiny moving pieces.

Most of the things that mattered there, that were funny or sad or both, like most things that matter everywhere, were just so small. They were moments and ends and bits that just seemed to fit in the palm of your hand.

There was Jean, who spent everyday in the lobby with a resting facial expression halfway between a grimace and wink, who couldn’t ever seem to control her decibel level, and who could often be overheard making woeful pronouncements such as “I’m so old. I never thought I’d see you again,” or “It’s awful having to go to the toilet all the time!” 

Or there was Doreen, well under five feet tall, who giggled with mischief and threatened to punch you as a sign of affection.

Rose, who wouldn’t leave her room to see her daughter till she found out she’d brought lipstick.

James, who always wore a helmet, calling out earnestly to me once down the hallway: “Are you married? You’re tall like me!”

Or Aileen, with whom I had a daily conversation about our matching brown eyes and how we liked them.

John, who would inch down the hall clinging to his walker and his quiet dignity while I followed behind holding his oversized sweatpants up for him.

Or Sophia, who once responded to my “See you later,” by clutching my hand and asking urgently, “Why later? Why not sooner?”

Of course there was the incomparable Barbara with her sharp sense of humor and room piled full of papers and books and projects, who once suspiciously asked me if I was warm enough. When I promised her that I was, she pinched my shirt between her thumb and forefinger, exclaimed, “Thick, my arse!” and immediately began to remove her own sweater to donate to my cause.

And there was Ruby with her careful up-do and red lipstick who told me firmly one morning from her bed, “They blame it on me because they think that I’m old. And it’s true I’m very, very old. But I’m not very, very stupid.”

Much of the above is straight from my memory, but much of it is also from notes I made in real time in my journal during my shifts. One day I wrote down a quote, but something must have demanded my attention because I left it unattributed, and I have no recollection now of the circumstances. “Don’t cry. Don’t cry,” it says. I suspect it was during a family visit, but I could not for the life of me tell you whether it was a parent speaking to a child or a child speaking to a parent. But it was life, the realest of life, either way. 

One family visit I oversaw ended with tiny Lamberta tearfully hugging her own arms because she could not embrace her daughter and repeating, “Te quiero mucho, mucho, mucho, mucho. Te quiero mucho!” So if we watch, in the end it’s the littlest bits of grit and glory that make up the whole foundation of our long lives, no matter what storm rages over our heads.

A Child at the Ocean

I went to Galiano Island with a couple sweet friends for a few days over the weekend and stayed one day longer than they did. First thing Sunday morning, I dropped them off at the ferry, then drove back to the cabin, took a bath, and climbed down the rocks to the water in my bare feet and big orange sweater.

I felt sad—sad that my friends were gone, sad about everything—but I was grateful to be sad. I am beginning to think of sadness as a privilege. Pain and fear are universal, but sadness can only be where happiness has been first. More and more I think the two are near cousins.

It was chilly on the rock. The tide was low and fog mixed with smoke from the fires in Washington sat on the water, painting all things a thick, soft grey. As I sat three otters swam up right beneath me, slithering and dunking in and out of the water, then when they reached the shore, shaking the wet out of their eyes like dogs, and gleefully crunching up some kind of snack they had found on the rocks just below. The mother caught sight of me almost immediately, kept an intent watch on me for about thirty seconds and then decided I was too close for comfort and led her little ones away. They went with her, happily jumping on her back and somersaulting and sliding back into the water again.

I thought about how little I knew about these creatures—the only vocabulary I had to describe them was hackneyed and uncertain—how little I knew about any of this. I didn’t even know how the tide worked. I felt like a child come to the ocean for the first time, but with no parent by my side to turn to and pepper with questions: why does the tide ebb away like it does? And more importantly, where does it go when it leaves? Does all the water that was here just tip over to the other side of the ocean—as the water pulls back from us, it rises on some distant beach in Asia? I imagined the Pacific like a bowl, a cradle, rocked daily back and forth by the hand of God, salt and water and life sloshing up first on one side and then the other. What lullaby did he sing over us? Was it the plaintive seagull cries wheeling above me or something even beyond that?

Part of me felt I should rein in my flight of imagination—how could I not know the science behind the tides, and who was I to make up fairy tales in their place? But I couldn’t help myself. Crouching there on that great grey rock, just above where the barnacles began, I was the youngest I had been in a long time—the saddest and the least certain and the most content. It occurred to me that I hadn’t known that I would have to become younger to grow up—but I ought to have known. I was told all along, unless you become like little children

Things I Google When I Write

Over the last few weeks, as I’ve been finishing up the last few chapters of my novel draft, I’ve conducted a bit of an experiment. Years ago I noticed that I need to have wifi when I write because I need to have Google. I’m constantly fact-checking, looking up images to help me with descriptions, and using the internet as an all-purpose thesaurus. (Any word I type into the search bar now, Google immediately suggests I follow up with “synonym.” It’s done that for years. It knows me.)

So just for my own entertainment (and now yours!) I’ve been keeping a little log of every odd thing I find myself looking up just so I can finish the sentence at hand. This list below has absolutely been edited for brevity: it’s about half of its original length and the vast majority of what I cut was just me searching for synonyms of everyday adjectives like “angry” or “large.”

The point is, if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to write a novel, here you go, enjoy. There’s a good chance it’s both weirder and duller than you ever imagined.

Week One

learned helplessness ᷸ tree nymph ᷸ I saw you lying in your own blood ᷸ Ezekiel 16 ᷸ Toyota Camry 2010 ᷸ ten reasons why ᷸ Netflix shows spring 2018 ᷸ Cookout milkshakes ᷸ pedestrian ᷸ hieratic ᷸ when do you need to start mowing your lawn each year ᷸ Jonah and the whale ᷸ Reilly ᷸ strikethrough on google docs ᷸ Hard Times ᷸ high school economics textbook pdf ᷸ NCDMV wildflowers ᷸ phoenix plural ᷸ semiannual ᷸ biannual ᷸ what’s the word for once every two years ᷸ performance venues in london

Week Two

Prace ᷸ April calendar 2018 ᷸ popular insults ᷸ Victoria and Albert tattoos ᷸ Victoria and Albert museum tattoos nearby ᷸ Albert Memorial to gold tattoos ᷸ Phil Robertson ᷸ Bill Robertson ᷸ ruefully ᷸ national youth choir ᷸ famous people with curly hair ᷸ most expensive dog ᷸ Madrigal ᷸ teenage girl bible study handouts ᷸ Hyde Park ᷸ map of where they say sneakers ᷸ 15 times 8 ᷸ 90/15 ᷸ Millie Bobby Brown

Week Three

TSA ᷸ soap bible study acronym ᷸ roll ᷸ benaline ᷸ kensington gardens london carriage ᷸ Museum of torture London ᷸ latte/espresso machine ᷸ does matte lipstick have a smell ᷸ Abide with Me ᷸ Psalm 49 ᷸ towels for babies ᷸ Optinos ᷸ dress circle ᷸ he never failed me yet history ᷸ Altoids ᷸ he never failed me yet lyrics ᷸ Borough market ᷸ Golden benchmark

Week Four

Consortium ᷸ Thank you for giving to the lord ᷸ Baby names 2009 ᷸ smelliest sandwich ᷸ Let us die to make men free ᷸ what does it take for a building to be condemned ᷸ what is larry ᷸ rain falls on the just and the unjust ᷸ Character awards ᷸ Home depot locations ᷸ end of year slideshow soundtrack ᷸ width of a gymnasium ᷸ Voyeur ᷸ forest fire before and after pictures

Old Age and the Point of Being

Back in July, I started a part-time job in a nursing home across the bridge on the North Shore, up in West Vancouver. It’s a long-term care facility, which means that many if not most of the residents I interact with have dementia. Some of them are pretty mobile and cognizant, but some sit in the same spot all day in a hallway or by a TV, needing help to eat, to use the toilet, to move from wheelchair to bed and back again.

I spend a lot of time wiping off chipped polish with acetone and repainting nails in colors that make ladies feel like themselves, walking slow, bent folks down long corridors to and from precious COVID-time family visits. Sometimes I sit by someone and fill in a mandala with bright colored pencils or scoop ice cream while dozens of eager faces line up, eyes fastened to the tub of butterscotch. Sometimes I just crouch and hold a hand. I’ve never been so frequently snapped at or so frequently thanked without really deserving either.

Inglewood has over 200 residents and on the weekends when I work, alongside the medical care staff, there are usually only four or five recreation staff members like me around, so I spend a fair amount of time rushing from place to place. The residents watch as I pass them by. Some smile and wink at me, though they no longer have the cognitive capacity to learn and retain my name. Others sometimes call out as I go—thoughts many of us harbor anxiously in the back corners of our minds all our lives, but which have now become so central to them in these final years that they speak them aloud in desparation. Can you help me? This is such a long hallway. I need to go to the washroom. I live here? What should someone do who feels lost? Will I be okay? What’s next? Then when will I go home?

They’ve returned, some of them, to watching adult life from the sidelines, like children crouching at the top of the stairs when they’re supposed to be in bed, catching glimpses of what goes on in the party below through the slats in the railing, trying to make sense of what is happening and why they are no longer able to participate. Inside these people, of course, are decades’ worth of their memories and lives and skills and selves, which still flicker out of even the most confused in occasional bright flashes. One lady I walked back to her room in her closed unit spoke to me nonstop in Romanian, and kept hugging me and kissing me as if I were family. She gave hugs as if she’d given thousands and would never lose the talent.

It is easy and often sweet when talking about old age to draw upon these vulnerable, childlike images. In fact, the comparison with childhood is nearly unavoidable, because the similarities of need, fragility, and even innocence are so obvious. And to think like that helps us to care for our elders with gentleness and patience. But there is a glaring, uncomfortable difference between the old and young with which we must reckon. 

Neither the very old or the very young are “useful” or have anything of practical value to contribute to the world—they are, in fact, a drain on tangible resources and energy. However, our culture understands that children make this worth our while because they are bursting with potential—tomorrow, we hope, they will serve their community in great and glorious ways. But what about these toothless folks with ninety years to their name seated on blue incontinence pads in their wheelchairs? What’s the point of them? What work will they do? They have no potential. They’re all used up and many of them, painfully, know it.

This hard truth must be faced because none of it is theoretical. This is our parents, our grandparents, and one day it’s us.

A few weeks ago I brought a tiny old lady named Belva downstairs for a visit. We were a few minutes early and since this wasn’t her regular unit, I took her around for a little field trip. We went out into the back garden to see the bright flowers, which made her light up, and we returned more than once to the large cage of colorful, twittering birds just inside the main lounge. As she stared at them, she whispered to me, “Oh, this is a good place.” And it was a very good place indeed, I could see. It was a place which had no time for measuring the relative usefulness of Belva or of her birds or even of me, young and productive as I am. Her place contained only the beauty of the moment and the joy inherent in existence. She was awed by the birds, and then twice over, she was awed by the automatic door when I pressed the button, and applauded as it did its work. She said that it was “wonderful.”

The work of the aged, the point of them, is the same as the ultimate central point of all of us. They have been made, and now their work is merely to be. Humans were made not to produce, but to be, just as hands, I am increasingly beginning to think, were made for holding. Hands are useful and important in a myriad of other ways, certainly, but to be held is their highest calling.

A Love Letter to July

I used to name blog entries after months much more often. In fact, if you were to dig back (please don’t) December and February actually ended up with two each over the years.

It seemed like a simple thing to do, to just say, here’s this month, for what it’s worth.  But I haven’t written like that in a while and just at present we are all in the midst of a seemingly interminable period of tension and unpredictability and confusion. There doesn’t appear to be much good reason to write about now. I’d rather hurry on past now, to be honest. I’d like to get to later as soon as possible.

But perhaps there is something valuable in taking stock of what’s currently around me, of not comparing it to my wider expectations and hopes (of which I have so, so many), of just saying, yes, okay then, this here is July. It may have strange privations and discomforts, but it has its own abundance as well.

I’ve just started a part time job in a long-term care home and my commute to West Van takes me through Stanley Park and across Lions Gate Bridge each time, inching in slow traffic through trees and low clouds and over the wide-stretching water. I get to deliver flowers to residents on their birthdays. I get to sit next to them and fill in a print out of a mandala with an unreliable set of washable markers and together we watch its petals slowly fill with color. I get to hold old ladies’ hands as I paint their nails, listen to them exclaim over and over at how nice it is to have the ugly chipped polish off, and isn’t this new red so beautiful.

On days when I’m not working, there’s blue, blue sky and sun on my shoulders and pasta salad. I get to watch my friend Lorna exclaim over every single fern in the UBC botanical garden. I get to read poetry in a backyard. I get to eat cherry jam with a spoon. I get to walk through golden summer grass in a school field that’s all going to seed and I get to take my car through the car wash. When I was a very little girl I used to be afraid of the car wash. I would cry, and a parent would hold my hand—it was dark and it roared at me from all sides. But now it is precious to me to sit alone in the dappled, swirling dim as the colorful splatter of suds is rinsed away, washes in torrents down the sides of the car, allowing the light back in. 

And friends, I get to write. I get to pile words in a heap and see what they yield.

A week or two ago, I got a card from my mom. Usually her cards have a Picasso reproduction or an old sketch from a 1940’s Vogue printed on them. But this one had only words on the front. It was a couple lines from a very tiny Emily Dickinson poem which I’d never read before: “Not knowing when the dawn will come, I open every door.”

So this here is July.

Shared Books and Belonging

Ever since I was a kid, whenever I read a book and love it, just really love it, I have a hard time comprehending that anyone else has ever read it too. There has always been something about a good story, especially when I was young and starry-eyed and consuming two or three books at a time on long summer days, that made me believe the magic of it could only be for me. It belonged to me and I belonged to it—we existed together, eternally solitary and melancholically happy. In some ways, the last twenty years of my life have simply been the journey of unlearning that, of coming to understand that, just maybe, other people might know and love the things that I know and love. Perhaps they even knew and loved them first.

This revelation that it is possible for others to read what I have read and experience it in a similar way has been a surprising discovery, but overall a happy one. It has, in fact, given rise to one of my more dangerous habits: book-lending. I habitually lend out books and, for obvious reasons, they’re usually my favorite ones. A bit perilous, but, as my dad always used to say, “Ships in a harbor are safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” True, he didn’t usually use the metaphor to refer to mold-speckled paperbacks, but I digress…

I’ve lent out more books than usual in the past few months. I only have a portion of my library here in Vancouver, but still I’ve found myself handing out much-loved volumes, first to housemates, but more recently to other friends as well. It’s been everything from The Thief Lord to True Grit, either of which has the power to make you fall back in love with fiction.

And I myself have been re-reading books fit for sharing. Gradually, beginning back in the Spring, it was the Narnia books. Many people I know are familiar with them and have read them multiple times themselves, so there is a peculiar joy in being able to casually mention to a friend that Uncle Andrew is just the worst, and have them know precisely what I mean, even though strictly speaking Uncle Andrew has never existed. This sharing of the story increases its joy and somehow even its truth.

In the last couple weeks, I’ve also been re-reading the Mennyms books. I suspect you haven’t heard of them (though if you have please get in touch immediately). They are a quiet English children’s series about a very unusual family simply doing their best to live a normal life but finding the task difficult. I think of these books often, I talk about them often, I aspire to have something of their essence in my own fiction, but I hadn’t re-read them since college, and they’re even more extraordinary than I remember. 

They are stories about loneliness and otherness but also about what it means to be human and the devastating adventure of mere existence. They can be a little bleak and existential for children’s books, I realize now, but children themselves can be a little bleak and existential. And the books do ultimately contain plenty of hope, and not of the flimsy kind. Really, they are stories of unobtrusive, everyday perseverance in the face of unalterable limitations, of tough perennial joy in the midst of permanent uncertainty. They are strange books, and precious ones.

As I reread the series with all the venerable wisdom of my twenty-eight years, I realized that, unusually for me, I couldn’t remember the first time I encountered it. I couldn’t remember what chair I curled up in, what my pet worries and fears were at the time, even how old I was—somewhere between nine and twelve most likely. But I am now sure that from the first, even if I didn’t realize it, the Mennyms spoke to something which lived deep in me, which still lives in me, and I think always will: a keen, noiseless, unquenchable desire for belonging. And through a set of stories in which, ridiculously, a blue rag doll is the most moving character, I began to understand, am still years later beginning to understand, that an identically wrenching desire for kinship exists in the heart of every person I’ve ever laid eyes on.

Perhaps this is why I can read a book and you can read the same book, and together we can love it. Together, we can belong to it.

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.

Art and Justice

I’ve thought and prayed and grieved and read and talked to friends and written over a thousand words of notes for a blog entry. But now I’ve deleted most of it and I want to say just two things.

The first is that there are many, many resources out there for folks who feel new to this, like me and maybe you. There are lists of practical ideas for offering help and support and solidarity in this continuing moment, and there are lists of resources for our own reading and our children’s, all to educate ourselves. Many people have put thought and care into these, and practical, tangible action is always, always important. But one thing which I think may be helpful for me going forward, which I haven’t seen appearing much on these lists, is art. 

I know art will not change policy and it will not stand between the innocent and the aggressor. But it seems abundantly clear that one of the deepest needs for all of American history has been for black voices to be heard, and for the rest of us to hear them, really hear them deep. And there is no better way for us to hear something deep than through art. Good art can do things, say things, make permanent, searing inroads into the human heart in ways that very little else can. I have always believed this, and so I spent a good deal of time over the past week or so shyly searching out black artists and photographers on instagram and looking up recent novels by black authors that I can buy on Kindle. I want to hear what they have to say about race and what they have to say about everything else. I want to teach myself more fully to see them as brothers and sisters, near and dear, molded fascinating and precious in the image of the same great and mysterious God I serve. I want the light that art can shed.

Really one of the most important roles of art is to bring hope, and that is the other thing I want to say. I think we must commit ourselves to the hard work of justice with all the self-reflection, listening, sitting, standing, walking, and praying that entails. But we must do all of these things with hope, hope that we are, each of us, made by a God who sees pain, who knows pain, and who desires justice for his people even more than any of us can imagine. The whole Bible shudders with the justice of God. He means all those things he says about the woe that will come upon the oppressor and how completely he will lift up and restore the oppressed. He always means what he says. So take heart, because he is the one who can and will bring justice fully, and he always finishes the work he starts in us. We can step out into this gashed-open, festering world with our sleeves rolled up, gashed open and festering ourselves but full of hope.

Let justice roll down like waters,

    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

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