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.

Two Hundred

I wrote my first entry here in October of 2010. I was eighteen years old and I wrote that I was starting this blog “in good faith.” Today I am writing my two hundredth entry, and I write in gratitude. Eight and a half years ago the girl curled on the desk chair by the ground floor window that looked out over Pennsylvania’s blazing autumn colors could not have comprehended.

She could not have comprehended the strangeness of the many precious and painful ebenezers along the way: the hands and the handwriting, the shouting and whispers, the nights weeping and the nights laughing, the holy silence of falling snow under midnight small-town street-lights, the vast emptiness of hands one Thursday morning at eight a.m. as the copier churned industriously behind me, or the steady plod of my own two feet up a green hill in Wales. These things would have baffled her. She could not have borne them.

But mostly she could not have comprehended the way this virtual space has functioned as a room of my own, as perhaps my most constant home of the last decade. Here I can slide words onto a string in complex order and hold them up to see if the light shines through, then try again and again until I get it right. Here I have over and over set myself the funny, laborious task of saying what I mean, of telling the truth both straight and slant. Here I have learned over and over the ever-piercing lesson that I am not alone in my fears or my joys, that there is nothing new under the sun, that there is always some other sheep lost in the same thicket, and more than that, beautiful and wrenching, that “grace is enough. He is enough. Jesus is enough,” and he loves even me. Here, two hundred times over, wielding only a softly blinking cursor against a blank expanse of page, I have grown.

Thank you, little two hundred.

December Inventory

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

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

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

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

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

Morning by morning new mercies I see

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.

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.

On Eating It All Up

Once a student asked me what my ideal birthday gift would be, and I told him I’d just like to have dinner at a restaurant with really, really good food. I love good food, and I’ve always been an adventurous eater. Anyone who knows me well knows this. Good food is the one thing I have no sales resistance against.

Except. When I get anxious, I physically lose my appetite. When I am in a period of transition, or stress, or just general upset, my desire to eat shrinks and shrinks, and sometimes disappears entirely into a general guilty nausea anytime food is set in front of me. (This is compounded by the fact that I am hyper-conscious of being a thin person who sometimes eats less than she should, but who doesn’t want people to worry about her needlessly. So I fret over other people’s perception of my eating habits. Which makes me more stressed. Which shrinks my appetite even more. It’s all very silly.) So I love food, but when I am discontent, I lose the love I had at first, and the thing which I relished, which was the joyful fulfillment of a need, becomes a chore, a strange, sharp little reminder of my inability to do something so simple as cleaning my plate.

In case you hadn’t caught on, this entry isn’t really about food at all.

It’s about abundance. I think.

I realized about a week ago that my summer is just not going to be very restful in the conventional sense of the word. I packed up my classroom last week, and I’m packing up my apartment this week. A few days after moving back in with my parents, we are heading to Minnesota for a family wedding, and then I will spend a few days with one of my best friends in Minneapolis. I’ll drive home from there, with a quick stop in Indiana, and have a couple weeks to get my affairs in order, before visiting friends in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida in rapid succession. When I get home again, I will have only a week or so before another family wedding, and then I will blink, and it will be August 16th, and I will be sitting alone on a plane, soaring towards a bright, blank new life.

This summer is so full of good things. I won’t have much time to watch Netflix, or even as much as usual to read and write, but instead my effort is going towards spending time with a few of my very favorite people, people who encourage me and calm me and make me feel most whole, some of whom I haven’t seen in years. Seeing them will be like sitting down hungry, after a long, full day, to an enormous meal. It will be like real rest, like letting out a breath I’ve been needlessly holding.

And these people and travels are not the only reminders of the abundance spilling out around me. I am in the midst of packing up my life into boxes and bags. I joked to a few friends that I am perfectly capable of throwing things out–I just have to eulogize them first. In one notable case last week, a eulogy wasn’t enough, and I brought a piece of student work down the hall to a teacher friend, and asked her to discard it for me. I hate to get rid of these shabby treasures, not because they have any value in and of themselves, but because they are tangible reminders of the bounty of the last few years.

When I am anxious and sad, I tend to tie myself up in knots, which puts a kink in the line, stops the good things from coming in. But sorting through these papers and odds and ends (among them medical gauze, water guns, a child’s pioneer bonnet, a blacklight, an incomplete Candyland set, and a topographical map of Knoxville) is reminding me. I am literally, unavoidably counting my blessings. My appetite is coming back in more ways than one. The world is so full of good things–my world is so full of good things–I must have, get, before it cloy.

Last night, when there were several more practical, logical, or even just normal things I could have been doing, I spent a couple hours drawing up a floor plan for a house. It’s not as if I really believe I will ever build a house, least of all one with three stories, a conservatory, and sliding stained-glass windows, but if I am dreaming, then I am hungry, and if I am hungry, I am able to glory in the wonder of food, along with company, and poetry, and every good thing.

If wide-eyed hunger drives me, I can pick myself up and dust myself off, and run with the faith of my seventeen-year-old self towards the divine eucatastrophe, the happy ending. God’s blessings are proclaiming that it is coming, the King is coming. Therefore, let us keep the feast.

Light and Momentary Afflictions

This writing thing works best, I think, when I tell the truth and show the rips in the fabric.

Late one night in early December of my first year of teaching I decided I was going to quit at the end of the semester. I was exhausted. The pushback I was receiving from some students and parents at the time felt like too much for my thin shoulders. There had been too many nights when, finally putting away my grading or lecture notes at two a.m., I had lain in bed, cried fat, angry tears, and wondered to myself what sadomasochist had dreamed up teaching as a profession. This experiment was over. I was calling it.

So the next day I went into work with grim determination that these trudging days were numbered. I think it was a Tuesday. That afternoon a smart, articulate student who had often liked to challenge me in class came up and asked me if I could help him with something. Would I look over the rough draft of his junior thesis? He knew it had a long way to go and he wanted extra feedback. He posed the question as if, though the assignment wasn’t for my class, I might know something about it, as if my opinion were worth listening to. So I said yes, and read the paper. It was clear and readable, but he hadn’t really addressed the opposition at all and made some unfounded statements, so I covered it in red. He came back in a couple days later and sat next to my desk, and we talked through my comments. He accepted all of them and thanked me profusely.

I think his asking for my help was, at least in part, a conscious act of kindness. He treated me as if I had something of value to offer, and so I changed my mind. I didn’t quit. I gave the experiment another try.

I stayed, and year by year things got easier. The work got simpler and faster, and I got to know my students better. I carried their weights and worries more heavily and mine more lightly. I still cried often, but gradually I laughed more and more. My feet grew to suit the ground where they stood.

When I leave Caldwell in a few months it will feel as if I am slicing the hundreds of nerves that connect me to the place. It’s a happier and more logically accurate metaphor to say that I’m leaving behind something I’ve built, but that doesn’t account for the hurt I know I will feel, because I already do.

Yesterday I sat down and graded the personal statements my sophomores turned in last week. They responded to one of three prompts: a prompt about failure, a prompt about challenging an idea, and a prompt about a moment of transition. And as I read their various experiences, often little but sometimes big, I was reminded how much personal growth necessarily involves discomfort. It involves inconvenience and sometimes pain to come into something new, as well as to leave something old. Being born and dying are both famously uncomfortable.

So the beginning of this chapter was marked by tears, and by all indications the end may be too. But though my worries and insecurities may show up as markers and half-rubbed-out stains all through the last four years, they do not define my time teaching. These years have been characterized by unasked-for grace: grace offered to me by my family, by my friends, by my colleagues, by my bosses, by my students and even their parents, but most especially by my God, who has said time and time again, “Yes, I intend for you to be here–I am here with you. Now take another step forward, and another, and another…” until I walk right off the page, on to the next unknown.