The Ties that Bind

I flew back into Canada last Wednesday and since then I’ve been tucked up in a little AirBnB in Chilliwack for my two-week quarantine. I have a bed and a bathtub and a sink and a tiny desk and a hot plate and five windows and a pillow that says “cozy” on it.

It feels like my own little world, like it has no address, cannot be found on a map, as if I’ve fallen into a quiet crack in-between. The days here are mine to dispose of. I was, in all honesty, excited about these two weeks, and I don’t think I was wrong to be. I’ve been content.

And yet. Though I’m not lonely, though the days have gone by pretty fast, though I’m happy just looking at the stacks of books I brought with me to this nook in the middle of nowhere, I’ve never been more aware of my connections to others, to the people I love, to the places I love, to my family and my country.

As I’ve moved further into adulthood, gotten used to the idea that I’m a grown-up now, I’ve increasingly framed these relationships in terms of responsibility. I’ve spent plenty of time in recent months agonizing over the difference between responsibility to others and responsibility for them. I’ve worried over my choices, over the right and wrong of it all. At times the thing has seemed like a landmine.

But as I’ve sat on this well-comfortred bed and talked to friends on the phone and listened to rain on the roof and read softly powerful novels like News of the World and Remains of the Day, I’ve begun to suspect that all this introspective agonizing was time slightly misspent. Our connections to those around us are not choice, they are fact. We’re bound to each other, bound by threads which can seem gossamer, almost invisible, but are in reality stronger than anything. 

These threads tie us irrevocably to each other’s goodness, to each other’s badness, to each other’s peace, war, rejoicing, mourning, wisdom, foolishness. I have felt them this week. They exist in our families, in our communities, in our countries, and in our world, and I ignore their existence to my own detriment. Doing so means I will not get beyond cheap hope, brittle faith, shallow love. Ask not for whom the bell tolls seems like a hackneyed line to repeat at this point, but Donne was right and I need to hear it.

All my complicated inner dialogues trying to gauge my own responsibility in any given situation have in many ways been a method of avoidance, a narrative by which I have control, can mark for myself an escape hatch from the potential pain or intensity. If I frame the relationship in terms of my own responsibility, I convince myself I can enforce certain limits or sever ties that bind as if they never existed. 

Then rioters crawl over the walls of the U.S. Capitol building or a friend’s mother stops speaking to her or Stevens at last sits and talks to a stranger on the beach at the end of the novel, and though I lie on my bed in my postage-stamp room in the in-between, not having seen another embodied human face for days, I find that my escape tactics have been for nought. I am so bound to others that I ache.

I do not mean to say that my solitude has been anything but good for me, but that one of the ways it has been good is in reminding me how unshakeable these ties are, that being human means being born with strings attached, strings which can both carry and anchor me. This little room has given me much time to think about over the last few days.

Then this morning I logged on for Regent’s weekly chapel service, which has been on Zoom for nearly a year now, and within the first ten minutes or so my shell of quarantine-contentment crumbled. All the individual anxious faces on their pixelated screens, far from family, tired to begin yet another semester online, overwhelmed me. I logged off in the middle of “In Christ Alone” in protest of the sadness I felt. Then I sat in the gentleness of my pale yellow room with my half-drunk mug of tea and thought about things. And I logged back on. Not because I was responsible to, but because today I wanted to claim this grief, this place, this people to whom I am bound.

Storing Up Montana

Last week was reading week and I went to Montana.

At five on a Sunday morning four of us piled into my silver Kia and drove down towards the border. I sat curled in the back with a blanket a dear friend gave me years ago. The sun rose. We stopped at diners and Walmarts, made arguably too many puns about Spokane and country music, and discussed the eerie beauty of distant crowds of white windmills scattered across sharp brown hills. We crossed range after range of mountains and we crossed the Columbia, which is so blue and so wide and shadowed by walls of crumpled red rock. I breathed in America.

The whole week had both a sense of home and away to it. There was an easiness in the proximity of the friends I was with. My friend Becky is staying in a big house in Missoula, so we filled in her extra bedrooms, and spread out our school work on various couches and tables and desks, positioning ourselves so that wherever we sat, we could see the sunny blanket of snow and mountain gazing back at us through the paned windows. We went out cross-country skiing for a couple days in the middle of the week, and stayed in a picturesque little cabin that night, but beyond that there were no real plans. In the evenings, we cooked big dinners, drank wine gradually, and sprawled ourselves on the enormous sectional couch of the house’s basement. As is often true when I’m in a group, I was nearly always the quietest, but for the first time in a long time, this didn’t make me feel self-conscious or left-behind. I realized I was sitting in the midst of real—if hard-won—contentment.

Often, both in my life while I was teaching and in my life at Regent, I have found myself shuttling back and forth at record speed between two modes of being: relational and informational overload, in which I am busy doing and being all things for all people, or, when I leave that for any extended period, total solitude, in which I enter entirely into the lively twists and turns of the world within my own head. These spaces are not bad in their own right, but neither are exactly peaceful. Yet this past week was something else entirely, a space I think I’ve rarely inhabited, and which is probably more healthy than we know. It had finite limits of people and time and place, but we were aware that what we had provided for ourselves, what our God had provided for us, was abundant and, more than that, good. The trip gained its own patterns and jokes and worn footprints of house and food and snow and car and we shambled along in them.

Also worth noting: while we were in Montana, I skied. (Just cross-country, don’t get excited.) Anyone who knows me knows that I essentially never try new things, especially not physical skills. I knew this was out of my ordinary and was surprised at myself for even being willing to try, but I didn’t think much more about it than that. And then we got there and I did it, and it was massively uncomfortable. I still have bruises because I am very, very good at falling down—it feels more natural to me to fall than to stay upright—but that’s not, as you may have guessed, the sort of discomfort I mean. I am not graceful in learning, I am not graceful in being taught, I am not graceful in growth. Yet despite some pretty public frustration, I did learn, I was taught, and perhaps I began to grow. At the very least another new hole was knocked in my crusty, defensive shell, and fresh winter air came rushing in.

And now, a week later, with a bit of distance and a bit of thought, I think that was pretty good progress. Eventually, sometime the second morning of skiing, the bright cold sun, the weight of the snow on pine boughs, and the rhythmic click of my boots fastened into my skis all took over and I forgot to fall so much. So that’s something to file away, something to save, something to settle back in the attic of my mind.

I’m grateful, is all. I’m grateful for a week for the seeing of things and the breathing of things. On Wednesday morning it was very cold and very sunny. I was walking back from the washrooms to our cabin with dirty hair in loud snow pants, and a little bit of snow sifted down from the trees just ahead of me. The air caught it like glitter and it shone like anything. I couldn’t stop smiling.

Island Songs

Last Fall, the first time I went to Galiano Island for a weekend, I sat in the ferry terminal feeling a bit fresh and fragile about my whole new life here. I took out my journal, titled a page “Island Songs,” and began to write lines. One was about an otter. The others were about light.

I went back to Galiano this weekend for the fourth time, this time as kitchen help for the weekend course I took last year. The place exerts more and more of a pull on me, and I can’t tell whether that’s because of its particularities, or just because I’ve been thinking about islands a lot lately. I’ve been thinking about how John Donne says no man is one in his famous meditation, but how sometimes I think that he is wrong. Some days I think that from first consciousness we are all islands, and we must call out to one another over and over, listen for one another’s songs and hints, rustlings and splashes, so that we can find our way back together, grasp hands in the waters of grace, re-form some lumpy, joyful Pangaea. Doing so takes concentration, time, prayer.

But this weekend on Galiano, I easily found these small gift-clues which draw us together and hold us: the way the garden squash which Rachel and I spent so much time cleaning and scooping left a strange blistering film on our hands for hours after no matter how we scrubbed, the smell of roasting coffee beans in a cast iron skillet over a camp stove on the front porch, the constant breeze outside just the temperature of new pine needles, and the way the sun laid a stripe of white on the far edge of the tossing water as a finishing touch, like bright icing sugar.

Not every place and time lends itself to the softness of these details, I know. But always, wherever and however, there are people—gentle, tough, distant, close—there are our fellows, the other islands, always waiting at our elbow, restless to be seen. And sometimes I come across something in another person that makes me ache and go silent. I forget to breathe, because I know that I have glimpsed the dust, the errant grains of salt, the things which gather in our corners which we avoid even noticing ourselves, which we industriously try to sweep out but which are ever tracked back in by constantly treading days and hours. Yet these common, sandy things are what will adhere us back together, teach us how to rejoin as “part of the main.”

However I have not only been thinking of what Donne says about islands, but, as I often have lately, what Lewis says about them in Perelandra—how we are called to stay on the ones that float, on which God continually drifts us to new waters, how he forbids us from scrounging up our own security for ourselves by clinging to the bits of earth that stay put, which we feel we understand. I am not at all making an argument against rootedness and living your whole life in one place (Wendell Berry would take me out and have me shot), but instead against the human walls we build up and foundations we dig down to try to protect ourselves from betrayal, failure, loss.

This academic year is frankly, for me, a little busier than I’m comfortable with, and in the midst of it I’m much more of a public face than I ever conceived of being. I’m being stretched—I’ve left the fixed land far behind, and not entirely on purpose. I’m well out in the sea, island-hopping. Each new endeavor, commitment, face which appears in my vision, can be frightening, looming as another opportunity for my weakness to gash itself open and ooze all over the floor. More than that, some days, everything and everyone seems to be spinning at me so fast that I feel like I have lost the thread. I wonder when all will again be still. And yet all these things and souls which come my way, floating islands steered by a Force far beyond my understanding, are gifts, every one, and though some days recently I’ve barely had the time for such impractical feelings, I am burdened by a delicious weight of gratitude for this season’s embarrassment of riches.

As I dance from island to island, my feet growing lighter with each step, I will stop to look out over the water of all that lies between, in life’s liquid cracks. I never want to stop watching. I liked the girl who had the time to see.

So whenever I board a ferry the little collection of lines in my journal will continue to grow.

Home from the Badlands

Yesterday, nine days after leaving North Carolina, my dad and I arrived in Vancouver with America splattered all over the front of my car.

We saw a lot of things–in fact I looked out the window a lot more than I did anything else–but my favorite was this: on Tuesday we came to the Badlands in western North Dakota, where for miles in every direction the earth has simply dropped out under itself, leaving behind thousands of craggy green and brown plateaus, all looking pensive as if they are contemplating their options and might someday sink down as well, turning the whole place into one great lush valley. But for now, and for all of human memory, we’re still in the in between–some land up, some land down, and the sky getting larger every mile.

We drove into Theodore Roosevelt National Park, through and around more and more formations of layered, crumbling earth, and saw fields and fields of anxious, soft little prairie dogs popping in and out of their burrows and finally came upon a herd of bison grazing. They stood calm and focused, some half-grown, but others large and ancient. Their winter coats, which were in the midst of shedding, hung off their flanks in great brown furls and dragged behind them like unintentionally august robes. We pulled over and rolled down the windows and a few came so close we could hear their jaws ripping at the grass beneath the still blue sky.

And as we rounded Highway 1 up into greater Vancouver yesterday the city flashed at me through the trees, a split-second, glittering wink, not to be repeated. Something quite deep within me jolted and I knew I loved it. Instead of dropping out beneath me, the road was rising up to meet my feet.

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.

Restoration

2019 has begun quietly. (For me, at least–I can’t speak for you.)

I’ve been home for a while now and will be home a little while longer. Events worth noting have included lots of time spent at Caldwell (more than I intended, really), lots of time spent with friends from high school and before (more than I expected, really), a brief, exciting ambulance ride to the ER (I’m fine, totally fine), and a trip with my family to Staunton to see Shakespeare (because that’s what we do).

If you don’t know anything about this Staunton place (which probably just means you haven’t known me very long) it’s right in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, which might be the most beautiful place in the whole American South. It’s all close winding creeks and green grass and steep, steep hills woven over with blankets of quiet tree branches, surrounded by wave upon wave of blue mountain ridges. Even its dilapidated buildings with cracked shutters and mossy, caving roofs are soul-wrenchingly picturesque. During the Civil War they called it the breadbasket of the Confederacy because its fields were so fertile, and, perhaps, for me, more than any other place in the South it seems to be marked like Cain, to be aware of both its beauty and its sin, but unable to reconcile them. I think it is what my friend O’Connor called “Christ-haunted.” It is a place that makes me want to sit very still.

To that end, I spent a lot of time over Christmas and the days that followed, as we went up to those mountains and down into that green valley, thinking about restoration. It showed up in my poetry reading for Christmas day and then I thought of it again as we walked through and over the cemetery full of lilting nineteenth century gravestones by the big Episcopal church in Staunton. I wondered about those graves, how they lay so still and quiet and temporary. How the promise of Christmas is not brand-spanking-newness, something never-before-seen, but even more miraculous: God making skin-to-earth contact, causing the lame feet to run at last, the long-silent lips to speak, and the dead to sit up in their grave-clothes and breathe fresh air. He makes the first things new and whole again.

Then on Saturday night we went to see Winter’s Tale, which begins so grim. “A sad tale’s best for winter,” Mamillius says. Leontes bursts out in a fit of unwarranted jealousy so lethal that by the end of the third act his wife and son are dead, and his best friend and daughter are so far banished that they are presumed so. But then in the final scene of the play, which takes place sixteen years later, the statue of Hermione, penitent Leontes’ now long-dead queen, steps down off its pedestal and takes him by the hand, alive again. He turns to the audience, to the heavens, to anyone who will listen, and says with awe, “O, she’s warm!”

So this theme of restoration kept coming up this weekend, but I’m not sure if I have anything to say about it except that it is. It exists. It’s all true. “She’s warm.”

Happy New Year.

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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

How I Came Here Collecting

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to come. Grace upon grace.

Heartland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Die before you die. There is no chance after.

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.