Wayfaring in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

I have a lot to say.

I had my last day of work on a Tuesday and by Thursday I was on a plane heading across an ocean for the first time in years. The man in my row didn’t have much English, but smilingly offered me biscuits over and over throughout the flight, and solicitously slipped an extra pillow under my knees when I curled them up onto the empty seat between us. When my client Bonnie had said goodbye, she worried aloud that no one was looking out for me. I thought of this, tucked up in that tight plane seat, and smiled.

My sister picked me up at London Heathrow on Friday morning, and, driving with aggressive delight in her little Honda Jazz, brought me back to her place for a shower. Then, within an hour I was with her and friends in the park in Southall doing book table, and a few hours later at youth club: eating pizza in a church basement, then sitting under a tree by a water cooler dreamily watching teenagers play a frisbee game that was slowly devolving, and thinking that these kids were so nice and funny and going back into teaching sounded not so bad after all. I slept very well that night, suddenly in a different place.

Mary took me out into the countryside the next day, to the Royal Standard, supposedly the oldest pub in Britain. I had pickled kidneys for lunch, and then we went on an idyllic walk over rolling hills while I chattered on to her about my uncertain plans for the future. That evening back in Southall her friend made us biryani. I realized that it had been a long time since I had seen Mary in her place—this bright, noisy, curry-scented corner of England—and it had sunk its roots deep into her. In response, she stepped into every room she entered with loud, dependable confidence.

By Sunday evening, my family had all arrived and we went to my sister’s church, Masih Ghar, and then to the back garden at the local pub to celebrate Father’s Day. It was one of only two dinners the five of us had together over the course of the week. It was good and easy and certain. 

Over the next few days I climbed St. Paul’s with George (where I found out that my brother—who for decades has given the impression that he can leap tall mountains in a single bound—does not much like heights) and went to a traveling circus with my family (where we clapped and laughed and gasped while women hung by their hair, and men hung by their chins, and a human pyramid of acrobats jumped rope together). I found myself at the kids club and the parent-toddler group my sister runs and having huge dosas for lunch, sitting in red booths. I’ve spent the last year or two pulling the shutters of myself closed—metaphorically, physically, even metaphysically—but nothing here would let me do that. Something was always in the way. The latch was broken.

*

By Wednesday afternoon, I was walking along the river in Cambridge with my brother and mom, brightly painted canal boats on our left and a park full of lolling students on our right. I wore a long skirt and sandals, like summer. The conference on George Herbert that my dad had planned began the next morning and I gave my paper very first, on a panel which included one of my professors from undergrad as well as a nice man who remembered me from a conference ten years previous. But the whole weekend was full of odd-but-good connections like that: ties to Vancouver and Pennsylvania and Madison and home. Herbert people, like Herbert himself, are gentle and warm and humble, and I liked talking to them, appreciated that they were always eager to remember my name, though when they realized my family connections, they would say, “So your whole family’s at this conference? I’ve never seen that before…” And I’d laugh and say, “I know. Neither have I. Don’t worry about it.”

Throughout the week, anxiety was sometimes still gnawing at my belly, but slowly, cracks began to form, letting the light in. The first night we sat in Little Saint Mary’s for a poetry reading. I had been, more than I think I understood, wrestling with the place of writing in my life—with what seat to give it at the table, with how to keep it from becoming a bugbear—and my heart slowed its irregularities, felt healthy and hungry again, as I listened to people faithfully present the words they had strung together. One poem was called “Reading the Desert Fathers While Eating a Donut.” The audience knew what she meant.

Then there was the banquet in the great hall at Trinity College—ornate wood paneling reached all around us and hands reached over our shoulders to refill wine glasses again and again, and I think I might have had duck five different ways. Afterwards we sat in Trinity Chapel while a vocal ensemble sang baroque arrangements of Herbert’s poems, harmonies rising over us into high stone space like a woven canopy. They were accompanied by a lute player who just looked like a lute player. I could’ve picked her out if I saw her on the street in Kansas.

And on Sunday, Malcolm Guite led us in a Eucharist service at Clare College Chapel, and the words of the Anglican liturgy tumbled around in my head, where they’ve been nesting for more than a decade now—Ye that intend to lead a new life, they say. There was one more keynote talk that afternoon at a church in the countryside where we were greeted with change-ringing from the bell-tower. As I sat on a centuries-old wooden pew, I watched the leaves behind the leaded glass at the far end of the chancel bobbing their heads in the breeze. Yes, they said, new life, yes, yes.

After that we went to Little Gidding where we were served cake and tea in the garden and one of the poets who is also a latinist read T.S. Eliot’s poem in the place of its birth—because what else could we do? “We shall not cease from exploration,” he read, projecting over the windy blusters which shook the tent and made the tent poles creak. That evening a friend I hadn’t seen since 2020 picked me up in Cambridge and we drove through the night up to Edinburgh. I sometimes slept and sometimes talked and was content without pretense.

*

After a negligible amount of sleep in Edinburgh, Tze and I were on the road again by midday, this time in a 20-year-old Land Rover Defender with another artist in tow. I listened to the tick of the windshield wipers and looked out the window. I realized that over the last couple years as I’ve been busy latching the shutter of myself—I know I have—I may have been missing some things. It was as if there had been a rush of water—a rush of newness—over old glass, and now it was time to look out again and see how the views had shifted. So as we traveled north and north, I paid attention.

There are so many blues and greens and browns and greys and purples in the world—more than I ever knew. Gorse and heather grew up over the country, which was sparsely populated by sturdy buildings with little rows of chimney pots. For the last hour of the drive there were constant vistas to our right hand side: wide, slow hills crested by winding stone walls that did not seem to know they weren’t there to crown a king. Beyond that lay the blanket of the sea, striped with sand, and above that the clouds, a landscape unto themselves. 

We talked most of the time, too. I pulled out my clothing interview questions from my project last spring and we all three went through them as we sped past legions of sheep and cows who were living in glory and didn’t even know it. 

We arrived at Freswick Castle, up north of Wick, in time for dinner, a place where they take in artists and strays and seem determined to leave the latchstring out. So I spent the next few days with warm people, people who tell you encouragingly that you seem so comfortable and confident without realizing this is due to their kindlinesses. Our wine glasses were refilled constantly at dinner. I felt more “looked out for” than Bonnie sitting worrying in her chair back in Madison could have imagined, and was often on the verge of tears. It was a combined sense, I think, of inadequacy and gratefulness. It didn’t get all the way dark there, even at midnight. On clear nights in midsummer, the sky just gets drowsy blue-gold-pink and hangs like that for a few hours before the sun comes up again. Murray, who owns the place, gave us a tour and spoke confidently about where the theater and the film studio and the pool would go. In the midst of all that cloudy diffusion of light, it was hard not to believe him.

In the mornings, I sat in the window in my room and attempted writing exercises and struggled over the skeletons of poems—unsure where to direct all my words and thoughts. And one day, using spotty wifi, I managed to obtain an apartment back in Greensboro (a place all my own) and a job (teaching literature back at Caldwell—And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we first started…) The castle is large, but also small, and everyone there had a front-row seat to the tumult of my transition. My friend was filming a video for Wayfarer Trust, which operates out of the castle, and I shot some moody b-roll and a less moody interview with him and continued to wonder where writing would fit for me now. I watched candles reflected in the mirror each night while we drank whiskey by the fire, noticed how the old hearthstones lay flush with restored floors, and took deep breaths.

I took walks, of course—with others at Duncansby Head, where we saw a puffin, and along the cliffs on my own, clammy with clear sweat. In that part of the world, the wind was such an active participant that it was visible in all things, like the Spirit. The grasses bow to it, the water ruffles under its touch, and the birds—hundreds of them—coast trustingly on its back.

*

I was tired by Friday, when I left Freswick. But it was the tiredness of progress. The pages of my journal were beginning to feel safe again, not like a wilderness. Tze and I dropped off one friend in Inverness and immediately picked up three more and headed west to the Isle of Skye.

While we drove and chatted I watched the highlands outside becoming more and more themselves, and thought of too many ways to describe the hills: the lines of the slopes rise like Icarus climbing into the late-day sun…wrinkled knees under sheets in the lamp light…mountain peaks are arms reaching up side by side like Moses at the battle against the Amalekites. 

We did a far-too-large grocery shop before crossing onto Skye, and then the back of the Defender was so crowded that I spent the last hour with a lap full of raw poultry and a bottle of wine in my skirt. Even so, when we got to the cottage we realized we’d forgotten butter, so half-hysterical, and with varying amounts of encouragement from friends, I beat heavy cream till we had enough for the next morning’s toast.

We spent the next couple days scrambling around the island. I liked seeing friends dotted into the muddy creases of a steep green hillside as we climbed, and I didn’t mind it when I stepped in a bog, went in up to my calf, and almost lost a shoe. The sludge that was left on my leg was green at its top edge, like the earth itself. Hiking there was much more about making your own way than following a path, and as we traced along the side of the mountain at Quiraing I always found my feet drifting up and up, unconsciously choosing the high road. At Fairy Glens there were loud American voices that made me smile. “You’re makin’ me nervous and I don’t even know you!” one woman shouted to a Scot high on the rocks, who immediately shot her a look of disdain. Another repeated over and over and over to Lord-only-knows-who, “Lookit the dog working the sheep across the valley!” 

I carried my journal with me everywhere and squinted as the sun reflected off its pages, managing to scribble anyway about the benches cleft of mud and grass, the plush black moss at the tops of things and the ankle-deep mounds of springy orange growth on the descent. My hair whipped all the time into my peripheral vision, so I could only see what was just below my feet. 

At the Old Man of Storr, it was gusty and threatening and while the rest hiked I stayed tucked in my seat in the back of the car and re-read my journal. I found I’d used the word “visceral,” over and over to describe the trip, as if it were a brand new discovery each time—that goodness could be real, that I could taste it. I heard a passerby say loudly to her boyfriend, “You think she looks sad back there?” But all I was thinking was, What a funny place for flowers to grow—in wind and rain and chill.

The last day we left Skye slowly—on the way I bought a very nice felt hat and a sheepskin hot water bottle cover. We stopped at a distillery where they made storm-matured whiskey, a phrase I loved. We stopped for photos by a bridge and by a castle and by a valley and by a beach, and got caught in the rain again and again. Back on the mainland I made them listen to me read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever aloud, even though it was July. We drove along Loch Lomond, which is very long, and listened to sad Scottish songs, and then eventually to James Taylor as well as Peter, Paul and Mary, because it was, after all, American Independence Day.

*

I slept extra the next morning, back at Tze’s house. Then he showed me bits of Edinburgh—from low tide and from a high hill—and we bought pasties at the train station and he saw me off.

I was sad on the train back to London. So I listened to a Kate Atkinson novel and then saw a pure white horse in the middle of a sheep field, which made me feel hopeful I was T.S. Eliot, on the verge of something great and somber. “Costing not less than everything,” I thought (lines from “Little Gidding” kept coming back to me with dramatic import.)

Then the last day I put on a crop-top, a white linen skirt, and the new hat itself, and went into central London alone. I wandered around the V&A, going up stairs and more stairs till I’d climbed out of the way of most of the other people. I looked at tiles and stained glass and golden miniatures and modern furniture design till I was all full up and warm. I got lunch in Hyde Park, and took the tube to Hampstead Heath where I meandered around for a while, ineffectually but peaceably. Then I came back and had dinner in Southall with Mary and some of the short term teams there for the week, scooping up butter chicken and paneer and dal with pieces of naan till I was satisfied, my fingers oily, but clean.

On my travels home, I made friends—on the plane, in the customs line, on the bus—or rather they made me, drawn by my cool new hat or maybe just their own anxieties. And I thought a lot about the Luci Shaw poem “The chair without distinction,” about just sitting on the edge of things, windows and doors wide open, available to be walked into, to be leaned on for a moment. I had walked into the kind doors of so many other people in the past few weeks, more than I could count.

The point is, this trip gave me much. That’s what I’m trying to say with all these too many words. But the thing it did most is it busted me open, cracked through dry skin, and began what may be a long process of cleaning me out. It told me that I must and can write and that I must and can love. I’m already doing them both anyway and I was made for them. So best not hold them in. Christ walks on the water, the wind, the seemingly impossible, and he’s calling me to meet him there, holding out open hands, always open.

As it says over the door of the Royal Standard when you cross the threshold, “Go gently, pilgrim” (but, by all means, go.)

Vancouver This May

A week and a half ago I flew back to Vancouver for the first time since I left last June. I was there for four full days and I spent just about every second of them feeling warm and wide-eyed. I forgot words a lot and at one point sat in the atrium at Regent next to a friend, looking up at the blue sky through the skylights and crying while she ate her lunch from JamJar.

Insomuch as I had coherent thoughts beyond “Oh, I’m so happy to be here,” and “Vancouver is green, green, green,” and “Will this person mind if I hug them for the seventh time in as many minutes?” I thought a lot about place and I thought a lot about presence. The importance of the two were all tangled up in my mind, and even now I can’t quite separate them, but perhaps that’s because they’re sprung from the same root.

I knew I wouldn’t be there long enough to get individual time with most people or to visit every place, so I focused on just being

I went from gathering to gathering to gathering in my rain boots that I didn’t need because of the sunshine. I posed for so many pictures with my arms around people, though I didn’t take a single one myself. I bussed home alone on the 25 one afternoon. At Melanie’s on Sunday evening, I unloaded the dishwasher and we all forgot for a moment that I didn’t live there anymore. And on Monday after convocation Jolene booked an Evo to drive me home and we both remembered that our friendship had really properly begun in a car-share three years before.

I saw so many people I was surprised to feel deeply connected to. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. I learn more and more as I get older that you never quite unconnect from anyone, ever, for better or for worse. Dynamics may change significantly, but the ties still bind. You feel them tugging, even when you’re not sure what part of you they’re attached to.

I’m always desperate for perspective of both the literal and metaphorical varieties, for an understanding of how things all fit together at the end of it all, and at one point during the happy, crowded grad tea at Regent, Heather and I went up to the upper level of the atrium and looked down on all the dear heads and motioning hands as people talked. I took a deep breath.

It was more important than I realized it was going to be to walk my two feet over all the ground I used to cover. I took a couple walks with my parents—one around my old neighborhood and one around Stanley Park—and both times I was met with a rush of something that was more like a scent than an actual memory of all my many walks and the long, rainy conversations that had passed over that concrete.

And all the long weekend there was a little note of delight humming continually in me because even when I was inside, there was always abundance out the window—I’d forgotten about that mountain-sea-skyline view that rushes into your lungs like fresh air whenever you look north. It makes me feel like a child.

I flew home on Wednesday, saw two little brown birds contentedly hopping around in the big terminal at the Denver airport, just being, and then landed that evening in a Madison that was enveloped in a hot, humid, other-worldly mist.

The trip, which was really just there and back again, shocked me with the purity of its joy. A year ago, I struggled to leave Vancouver gracefully, to not completely let the tide of my own resentment over what Covid had taken pull me under, but, in a gush of undignified sentimentality, this visit restored things in me which I didn’t know could be restored. “I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten…” Even when I forget to believe the promises, they still turn out to be true. I just show up, hold out my hands in a posture of receiving, and God sends my roots rain.

Brief Thoughts on Turning Thirty

I have a new client who’s almost a hundred and two. He’s very mobile and very sharp and used to be the assistant attorney general of the state of Wisconsin. The other day he mentioned that he had had eczema all his life. I thought, “Wow, you’ve had eczema for more than a hundred years,” and felt overwhelmed.

Anyway, that’s a roundabout way of saying I’m about to be thirty and I’m thinking about aging. The common wisdom you hear from someone who’s past this milestone already is that your thirties are a wonderful decade. In your thirties you’ve grown into your potential, they say. You’re no longer the insecure, haphazard mess you were in your twenties, but a happy, fulfilled, contented, perfected individual. To that end, I thought I’d write a blog entry for my thirtieth birthday called “Things I Didn’t Used to Know,” to share my accumulated knowledge with the waiting masses. 

But then the other day I read a new novel set largely on an island in the Caribbean and I was telling Abby about it and how I didn’t love it that much because it was over-plotted and maybe took itself too seriously, but how I really liked the setting. “It makes me want to know more about the ocean,” I said. “I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know about the ocean!” She started to laugh at me and then I started to laugh at me. The ocean is very, very large and almost infinitely mysterious. And perhaps there are many things I don’t know about many things.

The thing is, despite wanting to appear to be a competent adult who knows the things she’s supposed to know, I’ve always liked mystery, even liked uncertainty when it doesn’t present itself as a problem I need to solve. I drive the beltline here in Madison a whole lot, and without exception my favorite days to drive it are the foggy ones. They’re perhaps not the safest of the lot, but I’ve found that I like it when all familiar landmarks are obscured in the mist and all I’m left with is the yellow line to my left and the white line to my right, the steering wheel beneath my hands and the taillights of other cars ahead of me. It casts a spell, and even though I know I’m retracing the familiar path to my client Bonnie’s house, I also suspect that I’m about to emerge into a whole new world, full of colors and shapes and sounds I’ve never even dreamt.

Maybe in pursuit of that world, a few weekends ago on a sunny day I drove out into the countryside, starting near the home of a former client and then just getting myself lost on purpose on little winding roads rolling over hills. Every once in a while I’d pass another car and say to myself with a slightly superior air, “And to think that they’re trying to get somewhere.”

So as I’ve gotten closer to thirty, I learn more and I know more, sure, but the larger truth is that best of all are still those thin places and times and spaces when not-knowing is okay, when not-knowing is even preferable, when Mystery says, Come, child, come and see. The next decade of future is glowing strangely ahead through the fog, a deep ocean, teeming with as-yet unknown life. I’m likely just as ill-prepared for it as I was for my twenties. But that’s as it should be. Here we go and hallelujah.

2021 Retrospective

I skimmed over the entries in my day journal to write this. It was a task I was dreading a bit, to tell the truth. But the more I read my little scribbled phrases, the more I found myself moved by the many small oddly-shaped pieces of the year.

The first thing I did this year, according to my journal, was “woke up sad.” And then that evening I watched Henry V with my family, with that impossibly long shot of Kenneth Branaugh carrying Christian Bale through the ruins of the battle. Within a few days, I was back in Canada, quarantining in an AirBnB, talking to friend after friend on the phone, and falling asleep at night to Derry Girls.

So that was the beginning. What followed those weeks of solitude was a sort of triptych year: five old-feeling months in Vancouver, three unrooted months all over the U.S., and four new-feeling months in Madison.

In Vancouver, I took walks and handed out books at curbside pick-up at the library.  We were still pretty tightly locked down most of those months. I missed in-person chapel desperately. But one night in February, despite it all, three friends and I got dressed to the nines, went to a dinner with wine and lamb shank, and pretended like nothing was wrong. Rach and I even shared lipstick. Also that month I did a project where I interviewed thirty people about clothing. Apparently on February 15, I interviewed three people over the phone, took walks with two friends, and watched a lot of Broadchurch. That’s about how things were. I made paper flowers for Easter with my housemates and I waited. Eventually, after much hand-wringing, I presented my final project and had champagne. Then I graduated, read a poem, and had champagne again. As COVID restrictions began to lift, I left.

I drove down to Lake Tahoe all by my lonesome and once there spent most of the two weeks either walking to the grocery store in sandals or curled up on the corner of the couch with a book or the hard copy of my novel draft. But my Granddad also drove us around the lake and the water was blue, blue, blue. Then George came and we drove Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and then home. We took pictures all along and I wrote too much and with the help of a friend put it all together into a laborious photobook as a souvenir of my summer angst. I helped my Dad make a quiz for a 4th of July party, saw old friends who treated me gently, ran into former students all properly grown up, and listened to so many audiobooks. I drove a lot of toll roads.

Then I came to Madison where I got used to baby spit-up on my clothes, read The Mennyms aloud, immediately joined the local library, watched a whole season of Survivor with Abby and Taylor and then introduced them to my favorite shows, and where, in October, my favorite thing of all was driving out to my clients’ house south of the city, through rolling green-black fields and blue skies. At work I started a project recording life stories, yet again interviewing people. I heard more about football than I ever wanted to, drove up and down the beltline so many times, tried to get used to being the help in other people’s homes, and went apple picking.

I lived in wilderness this year, though often not by choice: squinting over fields at sunsets, doing writing coaching while wandering in the woods, walking to the beach when there were beaches to walk to, hiking in Sierra meadows with my grandfather.

Yet somehow the mechanisms of life kept churning: I ate really good ice cream, read the best bits of Wind in the Willows aloud, had family video calls, left voice messages, made a new friend or several, went to the dentist, had two clothing swaps in two different countries, went on a handful of dates (not particularly successfully), ended up on Medicaid which felt jarring but not bad, and ate cheese souffle on my birthday like I did when I was a little girl. I received so much hospitality from so many people.

I was in Karen’s wedding, which was sweet but inevitably reminded me that I’m not much of a bridesmaid. I got several oil changes, and my check engine light now comes brightly on anytime I drive through mountains. I made a lot of s’mores and cooked a lot of eggs. I stayed with several cousins I hadn’t seen in years. I sat at a backyard table in Pennsylvania shelling limas from my mom’s garden, and ate a sub at a steamy, dusty gas station in Utah amidst shedding cottonwoods. And I read more than I have since childhood, discovering Kazuo Ishiguro and rediscovering Kate Atkinson and Anne herself.

Inevitably I did new things. I watched a friend play harpsichord in a garden, rescued a bird on my old college campus, visited the zoo with a toddler, injured my finger in a vacuum cleaner, gave sponge baths, made my first pecan pie, got my first COVID test, and finally posted on instagram.

And of course, I spent most of the year intermittently laboring over a single novel draft. Writing takes a long old time. I sometimes forget that. And most of my writing this year I did as duty, as task. It often seemed curiously devoid of joy.

Only in constructing this entry have I been able to admit something to myself: this year has been a lot. A lot of good, a lot of strange, a lot of difficult, a lot of a lot. And the last two or three weeks have been especially hard, so I’ve gotten uncharacteristically bad at getting back to people. Sorry about that, friends.

But the other day, I picked up the now-finished draft I hadn’t looked at since Thanksgiving. I skimmed and sometimes properly read it. I’ll tell you a secret: to my surprise, it wasn’t half-bad. All those plodding hours crouched in my chair or curled on my bed, balancing my laptop on my knees, had yielded something that was better than it had been before. So perhaps those who sow with tears will reap with shouts of joy, after all. And perhaps even 2021, in all its grainy, changeable, overwhelming detail, has yielded many things—not all things, but more than we know—that are better than they had been before.

Because today is the day the year starts to get lighter. And even now, in the darkness over Bethlehem, a star is rising.

Thanksgiving Coming

I’m sitting in my bed (my favorite place for writing, no matter how I try to create another one) looking out the two large panes of my window, through which I can see bare trees and blue sky and the neighbor’s roof bathed in late afternoon sun.

Writing has been a struggle recently. The blog has not come easy because, though many things in my life have seemed good, not many things have seemed urgent, as if I must run and tell them right away. And as for the novel draft, in its final chapters it has become a millstone around my neck. I mean, that’s a dramatic metaphor, sure, but please believe me when I say that it’s been FAR too long since it’s had anyone else’s eyes on it. After this week, though, the draft will be finished and I will take seventeen big breaths in a row and start writing my pitch letter for agents. 

But the real drama of my life recently has been car trouble. My little silver Kia had already been in and out of the shop a couple weeks ago for an engine issue, and then the battery started dying on me. The second time it happened was this past Tuesday as I was leaving my client’s house in the evening after making her dinner. When the car wouldn’t start, I went back inside to ask her if she thought any of her neighbors could give me a jump.

After she had made about four phone calls (one of which was to her son, who lives twenty minutes away), and had also offered to let me just take her car (I told her “No, Bonnie”), and three different people had asked if I had AAA, and various neighbors, roused from their evenings, had run across the street to knock on more doors, I ended up with the help of two women: Paula, who’s a divorce lawyer, and Marilyn, whose husband Allen drives trucks for a living.

We huddled in the driveway under the floodlights and Marilyn gave Paula and me a thorough tutorial in how to jump a car. The Kia started and then immediately died again. So Marilyn gave me a ride all the way home to Fitchburg, and spent the drive telling me about her stroke a few years ago and about the paper route she used to do with her son and also giving me her husband’s number because he would be home on Saturday and could help. My car stayed in Bonnie’s driveway.

The next day I was off work. I called the shop about getting the car towed. And then, since Abby had a Bible study she wanted to go to, and Taylor was working, I watched Calvin. Our neighbor texted asking if we wanted a walk, so we set off towards the marsh with her and her baby, a folding stroller in tow, in case Cal’s little legs got tired. They did eventually. We went a ways. As I pushed him on the long path around the lake, he stared up at the tallest trees and commented occasionally on “the forest” while Sally and I chatted about moving to a place and how long you decide to stay there.

On Thursday I had a morning shift at Bonnie’s again, and I borrowed my housemates’ car. I took Bonnie to run some errands and when we arrived back at the house, I was helping her out of the car before pulling it into the garage, and Paula from next door (remember, the lawyer?) ran up and not so much requested as demanded that she be allowed to gift me a AAA membership. I said, yes, sure, of course, that was very kind of her.

The problem with my car turned out to just be a dead battery, not the alternator, thank God. It’s back with me now, safe, sound, and covered by AAA.

Some of this was stressful, sure, particularly the cost of repairs, but Abby and I were talking about it a little later, and I said, “You know, I chose this.” I meant that I could have made much different plans for this year. I could have gone back into teaching or some other job with a salary, I could be working from home doing freelance writing so that I’m not so dependent on a car, I could’ve even stayed in Vancouver where a car is hardly necessary. I had the luxury of choice, and I chose this.

I chose this, but I did not really understand the good I was choosing. I did not really understand the way I was laying myself bare to the generosity of the people around me: my friends and my boss and my mechanic and my neighbors and my clients and their neighbors. I did not really understand that in deciding to move to a new city in the wintry midwest and work twenty hours a week so I could write, I was choosing to accept the expansiveness of divine generosity. I was choosing the bright tightrope of God’s provision.

America So Far

A week ago I pulled away for the final time from the townhouse in Vancouver that was my home for three years, just a little teary. I turned on the radio to distract myself from what was happening and “Another One Bites the Dust” blared at me out of the speakers. So then I laughed most of the way to Oak Street. Thank God for absurdity.

It was a warm, sunny day and my housemate had sent me on my way with a container of homemade cookies, two of which she’d carefully shaped like hearts. When I came through the U.S. border after a line-up of two cars and one woman on foot, the agent told me “welcome home,” and I felt warm, because there is no better phrase in the English language, but I also felt sad thinking of everything that was now at my back. 

I spent the day driving through cities, and finishing listening to Where the Crawdads Sing, which I started on audiobook ages ago. The Seattle skyline was showing off in the blue and the sunlight, and by the time I got down to Portland it was one hundred degrees. Hallelujah and bring on the heat! Welcome home, indeed. 

I stayed the night in a little AirBnB airstream trailer in Eugene, Oregon, which was very hippy and very relaxed and reminded me just how buttoned up and bougie the West Side of Vancouver really is. I walked to the grocery store a few blocks away and liked seeing weeds growing in the cracks of sidewalks, and barefoot tattooed folks waving to me as they watered their front yards in the evening light. The cashier, who was inexplicably wearing a black wool scarf as a face mask in ninety degree heat, was friendly and chatty and asked what I was up to later. I told him that I’d been driving all day so my plan was to collapse, then realized that he now knew I was travelling and probably had enough context to look down at the three items he’d just bagged for me and know they would comprise tonight’s dinner and tomorrow’s breakfast. This felt strangely vulnerable and I escaped self-consciously back out into the warmth of the evening.

My second day I kept driving south. In retrospect, I could have taken I-5 down to Tahoe that day. It would have taken longer, but I could have done it. However, I took a more direct route, on a patchwork of state highways and byways and roads that were merely roads. Much of it was through National Parks at the beginning, marked by the familiar wooden signs with yellow lettering. I stopped at a little espresso stand in Willamette National Forest for a coffee and the woman there called me sweetheart, which is almost as good as “welcome home.” My check engine light came on right before I crossed into California and I pulled over in what I knew would be one of the last towns for a long while, and a man at the auto shop kindly checked it for free, said I would be fine for now, and sent me on my way. 

From there on out it was vast valleys nestled in rocky ranges, sparse forest, and great shining, still mountain lakes, for hours and hours. My housemates and I had watched Nomadland the night before I left Vancouver and now I thought of it frequently. There was often not a shoulder to the road, rarely another car, and the sun continued hot, making heat waves on the pavement, a shimmering landscape of blue and green and black and grey and dusty orange. I ignored my back that ached from sitting, listened to an audiobook of Anne of Green Gables, stared at the miles of stunning wilderness, and cried harder than seemed reasonable when Matthew Cuthbert died. Signs warning that this was fire country flicked past me, and once I started, thinking there were flames rushing behind me, but it was only the bright yellow line of the road. I was more anxious than I realized. Between Eugene and Reno I went through maybe six towns in the course of about 400 miles. 

By dinner time I had come down the incline into the Lake Tahoe basin, my place of port for a few weeks. I had dinner with my granddad and his wife, then walked the few blocks back to the little family cabin off Ski Run where I’m staying. I took a bath, fell into bed, and wondered what I had done.

I’ll be in Tahoe till late June, then my brother will meet me and we’ll do the cross-country drive at a leisurely pace, staying with family most of the way. I’ll spend July mainly in Greensboro, and then after a friend’s wedding at the beginning of August, I’ll drive north to Madison, Wisconsin, where I’ll move into some friends’ basement, look for work that pays a decent wage so I can work on paying off loans, and settle in to finish revising this novel and looking for an agent in earnest. And that’s it, that’s the whole plan. I’m living very skint and a little rootless for the foreseeable. And I have only the vaguest idea of what comes after.

As I’ve concocted these plans over the last several months, I’ve been excited about them–they felt like freedom, like hope, like adventure. But my isolated drive through the remote, seemingly immeasurable Sierra wilderness had gotten deep under my skin. As I lay in bed I was afraid, very afraid that I was a fool. That the uncertain, blank canvas of the years ahead signaled that I was walking off a cliff. At root I hate not having a plan or being in control. It took me a very long time to fall asleep.

But the next day was better. It’s beautiful here. I step out onto the front porch and the air smells of warm, sunny pine. And South Lake Tahoe’s a resort town, so everyone (but everyone) is on vacation, in shorts and sundresses and crop tops and flip-flops, walking to the grocery store for pasta and cheap wine, wandering to the beach like there’s no timeline because there isn’t. The sand at the shore is coarse gold, not the fine, ethereal grey you find on the beaches of Vancouver. Every day has been sunny and soft.

So the last week has been gently livable. I’ve walked to the grocery store a few times myself, marching out in my sandals through dust and sun and sugar pine needles, and even to the lake once. I’ve jumped into revision plans for the novel, scribbling in all directions on sheets of paper ripped from my New Testament notebook, facing up to the number of characters I need to do justice to. I’ve watched Taskmaster and Grand Designs while eating grilled cheese sandwiches, and read bits of mystery novels as well as Spoon River Anthology.

The anxiety which surfaced on my lonely drive lives on, and so, in a related and equal way does the missing of my life and people in Vancouver. Both have been coming out in emotional bursts, like I have a release valve somewhere which I can turn off and on mainly as I please (anxiety and sadness on tap!) But just because they are voices I can hear does not mean they are the only ones. 

For my birthday, my sister gave me a copy of Adorning the Dark, Andrew Peterson’s book on creative vocation. It felt appropriate to read it now as the point of the next couple years of adventurous living is to lean into the writing, to try to make it actually happen. I’ve read a few chapters, and it’s been full of good reminders. “Follow the stars, not the flotsam,” he says. On Sunday, I went with my grandparents to a concert on the north side of the lake, up in Incline Village. As we drove along the eastern shore for nearly an hour, the wind had picked up, and I could not stop staring at the water. Hundreds of little whitecaps ducked and sped across the blue in the midday sun, so deeply, truly, richly blue, that it made you wonder whoever could have dreamed such a color, and not only dreamed it, but filled a whole lake with it.

So I will follow this for now, these pleasant lines in pleasant places.

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.