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

Selfish Art

I’ve just got back from a walk in the rain—real rain, not Vancouver’s usual lazy drizzling nonsense. I am damp and happy. I am happy about the wet rivulets which poured off of my umbrella, and I am happy about the squishing sound my boots made in the grassy mud as I crossed the school field. 

I am also two-thirds of the way through a first novel draft. It’s been a push. It feels like work, because it is work. And yet. I’ve been reminded lately that it’s going to be worth it. It’s going to be worth it because when I’m finished, I get to read it. I can talk all day long about writing as communication to others, as taking the pictures and ideas and worlds inside my head and putting them in someone else’s using only the magic of words on a page, and I believe in all that, I do. But ultimately, in the moment, in the midst of the act of creation, I am nearly always writing for myself.

I create to respond to the truth and beauty I see, to call to it across the void, to expand upon it with words, not primarily so that others can understand it, but so that I can. I’ve written here before about how when I reread my own work, I often find that I’m preaching to myself, particularly if I’m coming back to it after some time. I only really know my own process, of course, but  if I had to guess, I’d say most art that is actually worthwhile is made with this self-guided focus, because such singularity of purpose is able to fully serve the art itself, and treat the outside audience as a peripheral, secondary concern. When you are in the midst of making, the fact that others may get to enjoy what you’ve made is just a happy byproduct. In that instant, you need no audience but yourself.

To consult your own instincts and pleasure so centrally as you create seems like a foolishly selfish approach, and I would be tempted to dismiss it as that, except that this is exactly how God created. He made a world and a people diverse, interesting, strange, and beautiful not because this was correct or necessary but because he knew that to do so was good. Really, I suspect he made his creation good partially just so that he could have the joyful experience of calling it so, over and over. In Orthodoxy, Chesterton imagines that every day when the sun rises, God claps his hands and cries, “Do it again! Do it again!” No one takes more delight in his own art than God.

So I will allow myself to be happy about my own words on a page in the same way I am happy about a long-awaited sloppy rain, because I can receive them and because they are good. A couple months after moving to Vancouver I wrote a little note for myself and put it on my wall. I no longer have any idea what it was originally in response to, and I sometimes forget about it for weeks at a time, but every time I do reread it, it feels more necessarily true than the time before. 

It says, You no longer need to be your own maker and taskmaster. Jesus has stepped in. You are free of the tyranny of self. The Lord has an infinitely better plan, and, moreover, he is gracious. Your only call is to wrap his gifts in rejoicing and offer them back.

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.

Darkness and the Coming of the Light

When I was seventeen years old I wrote and presented a final thesis paper before graduating from high school. It was on happy endings in children’s literature. My eyes were so wide and so bright. I had a theory, a theory much older than I was, that I touted proudly: “Darkness declares the glory of light.” (That’s T.S. Eliot.) All these stories, I said, all the aching and groaning to be made new of the old fairy tales, was evidence of the coming of newness. It promised that goodness existed, and was on its way to save the day, that there would be some big old thunderclap of what Tolkien called a “eucatastrophe,” a good catastrophe, and everything would come right again.

But it’s been a decade now, and even in your twenties, ten years can plumb wear you out. I have had enough seasons in my life at this point in which mere mental and emotional survival were the name of the game, that I have stopped thinking so much about happy endings. In fact, I hardly think about them at all. Instead I think about balance and kindness and repentance and making the best of things and getting up and trying again tomorrow. That’s what we all think about.

Yet it has occurred to me in the last day or two that while none of the things I focus on now are bad—in fact all are quite good—they’re all a little shabby and mortal in comparison to the golden language I dreamed in at seventeen.

Advent began on Sunday. And in Advent, we think about waiting. We step into the darkness and we sit there. We sit in the depths and we call out to God for newness, for the coming King, for a hundred promises fulfilled, and it is in this practice that I have remembered.

On Monday afternoon, I spent a lot of time wrestling with Christmas lights in the atrium at school. I didn’t ask for enough help in finishing up decorations, and then once all of them were finally up, strung back and forth above everyone’s heads, a little fuse inside one of the plugs, a thing no longer than my pinky nail, blew out and they all went dark. The thing which was supposed to do nothing but provide light and joy instead hung heavy and dead. We replaced the fuse. It blew again. We bought more. Another one blew. I replaced that one. I cried once and laughed more than once and gained a new electrical skill. Finally someone brightly suggested we use an extension cord to split the lights up between more than one power source. Fighting against darkness is hard, particularly on your own. I’m being a bit facetious, but I’m somehow also in danger of sounding trite. I am grateful for help.

Then yesterday was Regent’s Advent chapel service. It’s an entire liturgy of songs and poems and scripture, and we do most of it in the dark, with the exception of a few candles at the front. Throughout the last song they bring up all the lights in the room one by one, and you can begin to see the faces around you lit, emerging out of quiet gloom (glory! glory!)

After the service was over, a staff member came up to me, in front of several friends as we were sitting down to lunch, to say that he too had been watching everyone else when the lights came up, and that I had been beaming. I know, I said, I know. I did know. But I was also a little embarrassed at my joy. My friends laughed gently. I felt like a child.

I felt like a child.

And on that mountain men will forge                                                                      

From cruel implements of war

The tools to till and garden soil:

The rose will bloom and faces shine with gladdening oil.

 

Seer and Seen

I have been working in little fits and starts and pokes over the last week or so on an entry about God’s gentleness, and how it has been especially evident to me in this season of my life, but it has occurred to me that just recently, I have not necessarily been behaving gentle myself or as if I believe God is gentle with me. So perhaps if I were to post that a few people in my life might feel it was tinged with hypocrisy… Thus there has been a change of plans. Instead I am going to tell you about something which seems to me simpler, but just as true, and just as difficult to believe.

For the last few days I have been fiddling around with a little what-could-one-day-be-a-poem. If it were ever to be born properly, it would be called “Seer,” but I don’t think it will ever emerge into the light of any one else’s eyes, because I think Luci Shaw has already written it several times over. Instead, I will just tell you here what it was wanting to say: God is much more busy seeing me than I usually give him credit for.

He is seeing me when I leave half-finished blog entries and poems scattered at my feet.

He is seeing the cinnamon I put in my oatmeal.

He is seeing me parking my car in the same spot every weekday.

He is seeing me run my fingers along the top of the circulation desk at the library as I move to help a waiting patron.

He is seeing me arrange books in leaning piles on my bed to write first one paper then another.

He is seeing me sitting on the floor of the entryway of my house talking to my mother on the phone.

He is seeing me shuffling through old fall leaves which I hope will not stick to my boots.

He is seeing me remind myself about dinner.

He is seeing me drive late past the huge glowing Christmas tree on Valley.

He is seeing me lose track of the conversation my friends are having and look instead out the window into the dark.

He is seeing me going through the familiar motions of digging for words and setting them up next to each other, teaching them to be friends.

He is seeing me fall asleep, later than I should, curled tight into a comfortered ball.

He is seeing me.

He is seeing.

And—if I may end where I began—he is gentle.

This Too Shall Pass

My time at Regent is starting to feel short, which is funny because if all goes according to my (current) plan, I’m still less than halfway through it.

Nearly everything in the here and now feels like gift: shiny shoes, tired eyes, slim volumes of poetry, sky that turns to gloom so early we are left reading in glow of lamplight at five pm, the walk through UBC to see my favorite books, a friend waving at me two-handed in the library, and the pattering sound of the people of God in Korean-style prayer yesterday, speaking to our Lord separately but also all together.

And I am most particularly aware in the last few days of the small acts of love offered by those around me. Over a year ago, as I was settling in to Regent, I wrote an entry about receiving the kindness of others and how it was a difficult, but needed, transition for me after teaching. But the goodness so often given to me now has a different, deeper flavor to it, because now, these people offering their hands to me in ways I do not deserve, they’re no longer nearly-strangers. They’re friends. They know what I need and I know what it costs them to give it. And yet, I am inundated here by unsought gentlenesses: a letter in my box, thoughtful suggestions of what particular courses I would love next term or next summer, food shared without ceremony, immediate patience and forgiveness when I am suddenly reactive or awkward, or simply someone who is inexplicably pleased to see me. 

Once I would have seen these unmerited offerings and kindnesses only as damning evidence of my own need and failure, reminders of my capacity to fumble with what I’ve been given so that others are regularly having to come in and pick up the pieces. But gradually I am learning to see them as more, much more. These, too, I am learning to see as gift, heavy in their humility and their glory.

Yet, like I said, my time here already seems marked with an expiration date, and even these acts of love and the bright eyes that offer them seem ephemeral and fast-moving. I’m having to learn these enormous lessons on the fly. I will not always be here in this place, slogging through this exegesis book, wearing this green velvet vest, walking on these autumn leaves, supported by this stubbornly present community. All these things will pass.

But I will walk away into the rest of my years bearing a hundred messy thumbprints of now. And I have a hunch that with time, they will not fade, but instead deepen and multiply, an ever-accumulating revelation that grace endures. Grace endures and burns bright. My eyes can handle a little more of the light today.

Limits

On Friday morning, I walked from Regent in spitting, non-committal Vancouver rain over to VST, another theology school attached to UBC. I had strained some previously anonymous muscle in the back of my knee the day before and was trying to baby it, but there was work for my research assistant job to catch up on and this library had a couple of books I wanted to see. So, trying heroically neither to feel sorry for myself nor to limp, I went. 

When I arrived, umbrella-less and therefore damp, I found that the library itself was tiny, tucked away, no bigger than a single public school classroom, and boasted a total of, I think, six study carrels. Despite the size I couldn’t find what I was looking for, and when I asked the librarian for help she told me that the items I wanted were in storage, and eagerly put up an apologetic sign at the diminutive circulation desk, pulled on her coat, and headed off to some mysterious other building. I sat and waited in the stillness which breathed back and forth between grey walls and a carpet I now can’t remember the color of. I felt a bit faint and tired (for interested parties, I had eaten breakfast) but also warm and content in this room with shelves so short and unimposing that I could see over all of them and out the opposite window from where I sat. When my new friend returned, she had brought me more than I asked for. This trend continued over the next few minutes as I began to read and the pile of books beside me grew, through no effort of my own. I dwindled and dawdled there for a while.

It occurs to me that my favorite spaces recently (or maybe always) have been small ones. I think of the RCSA office on the lower level at Regent, which is little more than a glorified closet, but a closet with a place to hang my coat, to make tea, with lamps that turn on with a satisfying click, and a couch where I can plant myself. I think also of my little front bedroom here on Yew St., almost always a mess, and full of a mishmash of my own things (dresses, pens, maps, a poster from Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia) and the things that lived here long before my time (beaded baskets, expired passports, a stuffed Pooh Bear, a green paperback Canterbury Tales.) And I think of the first small space I ever loved, of perhaps the first wonder I was ever conscious of feeling: the tiny layered world contained between the covers of a book. How is it that a whole wide cosmos, big enough to get lost in, can fit into my right hand?

I’m waxing poetic because I read a novel today. Thank God for Sunday.

What Words Won’t Do

This August, I’m writing. I’m writing four papers (none of them terribly long), a first novel chapter, whatever bedraggled poems come begging at my door, many, many to-do lists, and now this blog entry. Hello.

Not to bore you by belaboring the obvious, but I love to write. I do not always find it easy and I rarely find it simple, but it has become to me itself a way of loving. When I see something or someone, really see properly, my first instinct is to write, to conjure out of that spot of time the requisite words, then to order and reorder them till they say the true thing and the beloved sits shining before me in verbs and vowels. Words for me, one who struggles to throw away even the most decrepit of old flannel shirts, are a means of well-ordered, small-s salvation. (You see why I’m attached.)

But, to my continual frustration, I have not been able to explain in words the sort of summer it’s really been. I’ve tried to explain: to others, to God, most often to myself. Yet I cannot, no matter my angle of attack, capture the sort of creeping growth crawling through me as of late. If I look at it, try to catch it in the act, it stops.

So I’m endeavoring to settle in and accept that. Just because I can’t articulate in words what I’ve gained in the last few months doesn’t mean I haven’t learned. (I mean sure, if I can’t properly describe such things, then clearly I’ve failed to fulfill the learning objectives as stated in the syllabus, but, lest we forget, life is not an academic exercise. Thank God.)

Though I cannot draw any succinct conclusions, and words are not arriving on their cues, I can offer a few small tokens: pictures and sounds, things you could hold in your hand for a moment or two.

There has been Pomp and Circumstance playing in a big North Carolina sanctuary and me in a soft brown dress and tired eyes stepping into the line of processing faculty as if I’d been there all along, and there has been a week or more of tires on the asphalt of the interstate: spinning round and round and round but also moving forward.

There has been that ferry ride back from Victoria in the afternoon sunshine with my mother in the seat beside me, while I clutched tight a children’s book I’ve never read before, leaning in to its last melancholy pages with every ounce I had, and there has been the trick pilot who dove and danced and generally defied death in the blue sky above English Bay a couple weeks ago, and the looks of dumb, gentle awe on the faces of the watching crowds at Kits Beach.

But most, there has been this intermittent and wandering sound of my keyboard while the traffic hums soft outside, and there has been a jar of bright, fresh-cut, wild-ish flowers bought for $5 from a homemade stand outside a quiet house on 14th Street.

There have been these things.

Hevel and Home

I left Vancouver this past weekend(!!!). I went to the States and walked around little towns which have their streets all named after U.S. presidents in neat chronological order. I feel as if I should now recount for you the complex history of how this came to be and how I got there, but that story, if it is a story, would take too long to tell. Suffice to say, I rode in my friend Becky’s car. We took I-5 into Oregon.

On Saturday I had a bit of a white night and sat alone in the attic room of our little Airbnb next to a truly enormous fern and asked God lots of big questions about why he loved me. And then I read the end of The Four Loves for perhaps the fifth time and remembered Christina Rossetti’s poem about the prodigal son, which begins this way:

Does that lamp still burn in my Father’s house,

 Which he kindled the night I went away?

I turned once beneath the cedar boughs,

 And marked it gleam with a golden ray;

 Did he think to light me home some day?

I woke up with puffy eyes the next morning and that afternoon we drove up the coast from Corvallis to Cape Lookout State Park. I read aloud from Wind in the Willows and in between times I looked out the window and said perhaps five times, “I really like fields. I love fields so much. Fields are underrated.” Becky asked me if they made me think of North Carolina and I said no, I just liked them wherever they were in the world. And I do. I like seeing land stretch and duck and roll as far as my near-sighted eyes can reach.

We got to the campground and after pitching the tent we walked out along the beach. To our left the brilliant sun, too bright to look at, eased itself casually down to the horizon over the waves, as if it did it every day. The ocean purred and lapped, loud and jubilant, and the divots our feet made in the sand cast tiny bright blue shadows all up and down the beach like other-worldly beauty-marks. The cool wind blew so full against me, it made me want to pick up and fly. That night as I dozed in and out of sleep, I forgot my clever metaphor of the ocean as some great cat and kept thinking that its roaring must be a train that never got any closer and never got any farther, but stayed by your side always.

Yesterday we went up to Cannon Beach, where a concrete wall facing out over the lowering tides read “ALL is HEVEL” in green chalk. I liked that. I led my willing friend on an expedition over to the far sandbar and on the way found a tiny daisy which was white on top, but magenta on its underside, like brazen petticoats. The sandbar, when we reached it, was like another planet, smooth and white and quiet, on and on and out. We walked and walked. My unwashed hair gusted around my face, and I stored all this away as happiness. When we reached one of the rock formations, we climbed it, scaling the salt-encrusted base and scrambling up and up towards where twisted trees and brave grasses clung, balancing, for the time being, between brown gravel and blue sky. We stood in wind which is much stronger than I am.

And now I am home, in my familiar bedroom, looking out my window at the well-known pine branches against this blue sky, which looks wonderfully like the one I saw yesterday, almost as if it were the same.

Your sure provisions gracious God

Attend me all my days;

Oh, may your house be my abode,

And all my work be praise.

Here would I find a settled rest,

While others go and come;

No more a stranger, nor a guest,

But like a child at home.

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.