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.

Beauty Past Change

On Sunday, I got back from an overseas trip that was the product of many very long-term dreams and plans. I find that I’m grateful for so much.

On a Friday a couple weeks earlier, Karen and I drove up to DC. We listened to old high-school era mix CDs of my sister’s, and got Chik-fil-A. She put her feet up on the dashboard, and then when it got dark and poured lashing rain for the last couple of hours, both of us got worried about my driving. It all felt very 2009, which was fitting, since that was the year we had sat in a booth in a Chik-fil-A back in Greensboro as teenagers and made a list called “Alice and Karen: London Extravaganza 2012!” Five years late is not that late. As we waited at our gate at Dulles the next morning, I thought that a lot of things were being fulfilled.

We stayed the first few days with my sister in Southall, which is in southwest London. They call it Little India. I always think that coming into Southall as a white American is double culture-shock, because you’ve got all the neat, well-worn British infrastructure, but it’s overwhelmingly, full-to-bursting South Asian.

On Monday night, while we watched a wonderfully ridiculous Bollywood movie, and ate wonderful chicken curry and paneer, one of Mary’s roommates covered our arms with henna, and for the rest of the week when we were out around Southall, we got surprised and approving looks from the locals. I bought a really great coat for £5.50 at the charity shop Mary helps run and stared longingly at the beautiful saris that I have no clue how or excuse to wear. And of course the whole family plus Karen ate at Mirch Masala our last night in the city. Mary ordered for the table: lamb on the bone, two kinds of chicken, naan, veg, more paneer, and pitchers of mango lassi. Then we walked back down the sunny crowded streets, full and happy.

Of course, we saw Central London too. The first day, I dragged Karen and George from Kensington Gardens, where we saw the wonderfully ridiculous Italianate memorial a grieving Victoria had built for her Albert, past various important landmarks, all the way down to the Thames, entirely on foot. We ended up at a pretty sliver of park called Victoria Tower Gardens, where we sat on a bench and watched the river go by. That was my favorite part of the day.

I like the quieter corners of cities best: Karen and I walked around Notting Hill another evening,  and when we went to Oxford for the day, best of all was walking through Christ Church Meadow. We sat by the stream there, watched people go leisurely punting past, and took polaroids.

Later in the week, when the whole family had gotten there we went to Hodgkins Certified Favorite London Places: the British Library, Hampstead Heath, and Apulia for an early birthday dinner for Dad. Mom had gotten us all to write poems for him, and after we had read those out and were full of Italian food and wine, we walked around the corner to see an emotional Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Tempest. I had seen The Mousetrap the night before with Karen, but I didn’t compare them. I just enjoyed them both.

 

Then on Saturday Karen left for Brussels and the continent, and my family strapped on our packs and took a train to Birmingham and then another one to Welshpool. Out the window of the train as we were crossing into Wales I saw a field crowded full of solar panels with dozens of sheep wandering between them. I knew that we were getting close.

Back in the eighth century, a Saxon king called Offa decided that he wanted to invade Wales. When this proved more difficult than predicted, he forced his slaves to build a very long earthen wall between his territory and the Welsh, so that they couldn’t invade him back with more success. So now there is a 150 mile walking path named after Offa’s Dyke which winds along the present-day border between England and Wales, back and forth across (and sometimes right on top of) the Dyke itself. Our plan was to do about seventy miles of it, heading south. (Except apparently what the British call walking is what we call hiking, but it’s probably for the best that we didn’t understand that beforehand.)

We got off the train at Welshpool, and it was raining. So we pulled our ponchos over ourselves and our packs and lurched into the town like hunchbacked swamp-beasts to find lunch in a shop. I got a Scotch egg (and others got other things, like sausage rolls,) and we set off down the canal. By the time we reached the actual entrance of the path (marked by the marvelous yellow acorn that we all learned to love so well), the sun was out, and we stripped off our ponchos and marched forth through various wonderfully rolling private pastures, confident in the Right of Way Act for walkers.

Then our precious guidebook announced that there were double arrow climbs ahead of us, and we realized that we had not quite counted on this level of exertion. It was the sort of hill that would almost certainly have had switchbacks in the US, but of course it was just someone’s farmland, and you don’t put switchbacks on that. So we toiled up it for a good hour or two, with a very important reprieve at what was marked as a “special bench.” (All benches henceforth became special.) But after that first painful climb was finally over, there were golden barley fields to cut straight through, which, when you were in the midst of them, went on and on, only stopping at the sky, and then there was a shadowy pine forest that our guidebook called “Grimms’ fairytale,” and a country estate with tall, tall trees, and tame pheasants dawdling past our feet. And then there were hot showers and an enormous dinner at our inn.

The days after the first one blend together more, (or, rather, I’m not going to subject you to a play-by-play,) but I consistently wrote in my journal about the beauty and my tiredness and my contentment. I said that none of these things could be overstated, and I wasn’t being hyperbolic. It was the most beautiful–you did not really have to climb for a view–the view was everywhere. I was the most tired and the most content. We played Spades in pubs at night while waiting for dinner, we picked and ate blackberries as we walked, we had cake at the top of a windy hill and read Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Psalms aloud to the livestock, we took advantage of the free tea and biscuits for walkers in country churches, we squelched in our boots when it rained, we ate bought sandwiches in the ruins of the castle where George Herbert was born, and we saw thousands upon thousands of sheep and marched along daily in their droppings. We even, inevitably, came across a couple of them in various states of decomposition, one with a monarch butterfly fluttering in and out of its ribs. My mom said there was a poem in that, and I agreed with her, but I couldn’t think what it would be.

I realized as we walked up and down and over the hills that I was capable of much more than I had thought, though I resented the fact that while you climbed, the best and farthest views were at your back. (I knew there was a life lesson in that as well, but I decided simply to learn it by osmosis, rather than by dwelling on it.)

We cut our walk short by a day to spend time in Hay-on-Wye, a little Welsh town with more bookstores per capita than anywhere in the world. We split up in the morning and then met back at a bench near the town square with our individually accumulated book piles, and in the afternoon took a cab to Llathony, which has a beautiful ruined Priory and only about three other buildings. Our driver gleefully played chicken with the other cars on the narrow Welsh roads, and drove so fast along the side of the mountain and through Gospel Pass, that I said seriously to myself, “Well, if this is the way I go, it’s so beautiful that I don’t think I’ll mind.”

That was a symptom of the way I felt the whole two weeks, though. Once I got past jet lag in London, and adjusted to the fact I was somewhere new, everything in me seemed to simplify and slow and fall into its own groove. The rain which had been terrifying on the initial drive up to DC became friendly as I squinted through wet eyelashes, looking for the next path marker. The sun brightened the things around me: the grass, the roofs, the crowds of sheep, the crowds of people, and I was able to appreciate the shades of difference it made. The practice of gratitude became easy and easier.

Common sense says the feeling will not last, but I’ve been home for a few days now, and it’s still hanging on. On the plane on the way back, I wrote a haiku about the clouds outside the window, unconsciously inspired, I think, by the legions of sheep I’d witnessed staring so stolidly at me earlier that week. So who’s to say that doesn’t mean something?

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

  Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

     With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

                            Praise him.

Houses in Detroit

This entry should be entirely in pictures, but instead, it is entirely in words. I’m sorry. I’ve failed you. Words are all I have.

On Monday, while making the long drive back from Minnesota, my parents and I stopped and stayed the night with my mom’s younger brother in Detroit. Last summer he bought a house there in a neighborhood called La Salle Gardens. It’s a two story, four-bedroom Tudor with a big, open attic, and stained glass in the dining room, and a beautiful carved bannister on the stairs, and a basement that has two bathrooms, a bar, and pool table which maybe used to be a speakeasy. He paid $20,000 for it.

I don’t know a lot about Detroit. I’m very willing to admit that I haven’t really done my research. I know that they make cars there, and that there were race riots in the sixties, and then everything got dangerous and over a million people left (I don’t know which happened first) and now everyone in the country seems to feel scared and sad and bitter about Detroit. And I know that before my uncle even closed the sale of his house, someone came in and stole all the copper pipes.

At some indeterminate point during my freshman year of college, when, as a dorm dweller, I was in the throes of a bit of a house-obsession, I had stumbled across this website: http://www.100abandonedhouses.com/. What the photographer had captured was cold and crumbling and beautiful and lonely. I returned over and over to stare at the houses, all of which seemed to whisper, in their hundred different voices, I once was.

And then, five years later, on Monday, there I was in Detroit. We were there for less than twenty hours, some of which necessarily involved sleeping, but we walked and we drove and we walked again, and I saw those houses. In my uncle’s neighborhood, children played in the street, ramming into one another happily with their bikes, older siblings bossing and cajoling the younger ones. Houses in good repair and houses still clearly stuck in tough times sat next to houses marked for demolition, and houses with their whole back ends fallen in which were probably still years from the top of the city’s demo list. My dad said the neighborhoods were like a mouth full of broken teeth.

We walked and I stared at the houses. I know so little about architecture that I don’t have the vocabulary to describe what I loved about them. (So much for “words are all I have.”) Most of them were big, some of them huge. Every window and door seemed to be broken or boarded or barred. Some had box air conditioners spilling out of them. There were pillars and many-paned glass windows, and yards full of weeds that looked older than me, and generous front stoops, and turrets with overgrown trees leaning into them, and sloping slate roofs, and stone facades with bullet wounds, and gingerbread molding, and gables that sagged like sleeping eyes, and intricate brickwork, and worn steps adorned with enormous concrete fleurs-de-lis and lions, brought in to urge tired houses on to former glory. We walked and we looked and every time my mom said, “Oh, it’s so sad,” I found myself saying, “Oh, it’s so pretty.”

People who saw us from their porches or their cars looked and waved at the gawking white people with friendly confusion, like we were desert animals wandered into the tundra. One lady named Addie Tyson, age ninety-one, stopped us and talked almost non-stop for twenty minutes, mostly about how proud she was to live in the house she lived in, and then wanted to give me a hug, largely, I think, motivated by her surprise that I was twenty-four, and not fifteen, like she had thought. We walked on and saw several pit bulls, one happily roaming free.

Even before this very brief visit I had talked about my fascination with Detroit and the strange appeal the shattered houses held for me, but I am not built to be an urban homesteader. I am white and single and female, and while I know this doesn’t entirely preclude me, the fact that I am easily frightened, less than usually resourceful, and more than usually uncomfortable even in the safest of cities probably does. Detroit is dangerous. It is no longer the murder capital of the United States (Hooray, Chicago!), but there is still a bullet hole in one of my uncle’s front windows. Many other houses have them too. And though with a few more years of teaching I could probably afford to buy a house there out-of-pocket, the work to be done in most of them is enormous. A few of the doors in my uncle’s house are salvaged from other places. And when we left on Monday, there were holes in the living room ceiling and the upstairs bathroom floor, all on the docket to be repaired in the coming weeks.

But even if I don’t go to Detroit, there is something to be learned. (There is always something to be learned.) There is something that Kevin Bauman’s 100 Abandoned Houses project did not capture, or at least which I could not capture from it. His photos show individual houses, alone in their desolation. But when I stood in front of those houses and rode down rows of them, they cast a different spell on me. They sat all pressed up against one another in their various architectural styles and their levels of decay and repair, and they reminded me of people. I don’t just mean that as a some lightweight personification. I know houses don’t have immortal souls, but they reminded me of you and me and him and her all added on next to one another, side by side in our memories and our oddities and our destruction and our hope and our waiting.

Monday evening, as we drove around neighborhoods full of slightly-dilapidated mansions and long-abandoned houses with trees grown up through them, my dad marveled at such devastation existing so close to such wealth. But I looked into their eyes and I could not be surprised. Those houses were tired and wounded, some with their guts ripped out. Made of dust, they looked ready for resurrection.

The Sun

I’m writing because it’s March 31st, I haven’t written since February, and I don’t think I’ve ever missed a month. I don’t have much to say, though. It’s spring break, I just got back from a college visit with my brother, and all I can think of is how many things there are to do before I go back to school on Monday. It’s actually not that long of a list, but my foul mood is managing to expand the font size.

But on our early flight back from Houston this morning I watched the sun rise. A blade of orange light bisected the darkness. Above it, the clouds made mountains and then gold faded into the softest blue. That blue got bigger and brighter and bigger and warmer until, quite suddenly, the clear, white sun came up. Even when I closed my eyes it burned through my eyelids and lit the world.

It’s March 31st and I watched the sun rise.

Reading, Writing, and Living

I finished two books over Thanksgiving break. One of them I started way back in August, but that’s neither here nor there. Both were strongly recommended to me by teacher-friends and roughly the size of bricks: East of Eden and A Prayer for Owen Meany.

I finished the first on the three-and-a-half hour drive from a Minneapolis airport hotel up to my uncle’s camp, way north of Duluth. Although there were parts that made me feel cold and unsure, the last quarter of that book made me warm. It’s a story about overcoming evil, but wonderful and frightening: it’s about overcoming evil within ourselves, about the ultimate powerlessness of sin in the face of mercy. So I liked that.

And then, three days later, on the drive back down to the airport, I finished Owen Meany. Or rather, I meant to, but the lead up to the final scene that I knew was coming got me more and more worked up and, although I never get car-sick, I began to feel nauseated and laid the book down on my lap. I sat crushed in the backseat of the little rental car with my aunt and my brother and looked out the window at Minnesota’s shades of white and grey and wondered when reading had become such a harrowing experience.

When I was a kid, reading was like breathing–I did it inside, outside, on my bed, on the couch, on the floor, in the bathroom, under the table. But even as a child I knew there was a limit, that there was such a thing as too much. Once, when I was probably nine or ten, I read four books in one day, and each time my mother or some other demanding force pulled me to the surface, I came up for air snarling and unhappy. I was so deeply immersed that the world of my books seemed more real than the world around me. From that day on, I judiciously set myself a “no more than three books a day” rule (which now, as an adult with access to Netflix, I have no trouble sticking to.)

But the way I felt last Monday, driving to the airport with Owen Meany in my lap, reminded me of that four-book day. I knew how the story was going to end–each detail of the last scene was painstakingly, loudly foreshadowed and even explained. But I was drowning in it. Eventually we got to the airport, and before even going through security, I bought a bottle of orange juice, sat down, and read the last fifteen pages or so, through the ending that I had been both anticipating and dreading. My stomach still felt queasy. “You don’t read enough.” I told myself over and over. “You’re just not used to this kind of emotional involvement anymore.” The TSA officer who checked my boarding pass told me to smile, and I gripped the novel through my purse, wanting to slam it into his face, notify him of what I was experiencing.

Finally, a few hours later, just before landing in Midway on a very crowded plane, I wrote a poem. I have been writing one every Monday for the last few months, so I figured that though I still felt awful and also unsure of where the barf bags were, I would go ahead and get it done. It began as a poem telling God what it was that I needed at this dreadfully harrowing emotional moment in my life and then, a brief two stanzas later, it ended with him telling me that he already knew. Oh. He knew.

I put my notebook away and felt warm and comforted and, for the first time all day, hungry. Writing gave me instant relief. Input and output: the novel had run right through me, been let out at the end by my poem, and I was clean and new, like a glass pipette.

I’ve been thinking about all that this week, coming up with morals and conclusions about the ultimate purpose of the story-telling and the written word and self-expression, both our own and other people’s. But I keep getting stumped on one thing: what about living? What about real experience? What about each second that ticks and each movement of our hands that never gets recorded or even remembered, but still is the thing which shapes us most intently, wears the grooves into our souls?

That Friday, while helping my mom with our belated Thanksgiving dinner, I sat at the counter in my aunt’s kitchen making rolls. I tasted a corner of the dough, and the soft tang of the yeast brought me an overwhelming sense of missing. The recipe is a family friend’s, passed down by my grandma, but the person those rolls made me miss was my sister far away in London. She is the one to make them every year in our house, to turn up the music in the kitchen, to roll them out, to crowd them in that pan, to pack away the leftovers, to eat and eat them for days after the holiday. I was doing a shoddy, lumpy job compared to her.

Later that evening, we sat in the living and sang Thanksgiving hymns (which several family members claimed to know very few of) and I again thought of Mary, who knows all the words, all the notes on piano, who loves to sing along, and loud. I slipped out of my seat, sat halfway down the basement stairs and cried.

In the actual living of our lives, feelings of missing and longing and love and assurance and doubt rope their way around our hearts and are not dealt with by the writing of one poem, or by the writing of twenty, I would guess. But he knows, God already knows. And he “keeps us with repining restlessness.”

Our hearts are restless till they rest in You.

Three Memories for the Mid-Way Point

My junior year of high school we took U.S. History. One day at lunch, part-way through the year, I found a classmate crying in the hallway. She told me she had failed the last few history tests and she was too intimidated to ask the teacher and she was just so, so lost. We were not particularly friends, but I politely offered to help and I remember being surprised when she was eager to take me up on it. So she came over a couple nights later and we sat at my dining room table and ate brownies and talked about tariffs. After we got our next test back, she wrote me a profusely sweet little note, “ALICE! Thank you so, so much for helping me! I got an 84!” An 84, I thought, That’s good? I would hate an 84. And every time I remember that I thought that, I am ashamed. I want to go back and grab my sixteen-year-old self by the lapels of her worn-out uniform sweater and shake her. I want to tell her that in six years’ time she will not remember a single one of her own silly test grades but she will remember that beautiful, hard-won B-. She will remember the smiley-faces that were drawn all over that note, and she will be humbled by them.

This Christmas my family flew up to Minnesota, and en route we had what became an eight-hour layover in the Atlanta airport. We sat and we sat and I watched the people. There were a lot of servicemen and women–lots of Marines especially–some hurrying to catch a flight and some just waiting. As one after another went by and I hoped for each one that he was going home, I realized that though the women in uniform looked like women, the men mostly looked like boys. I did the math in my head, and realized that most of them were probably closer in age to my students than they were to me. Then they looked very young indeed. In the midst of all of that sitting and watching, I wrote this in my prayer journal, about my students: “I must keep repeating my mantra from earlier in the year, before I cared about them so much: You love them far more than I ever will and You do it better. There is nothing I can break down that You cannot build back up and stronger. I will trust in Your love for them.”

My sophomore year of college was my hardest. Everything looked very grey to me and I felt grainy and sad. If you have been reading this blog long enough you may remember. That March, at the tail end of my spring break, my mom and George came up to visit me. I remember running out into the ice and snow to meet them when the car pulled up. My mom got out to hug me, and then she said, “Oh, I brought you something.” She leaned into the car and turned back around holding a mason jar full of bright yellow daffodils from home. Just last night I remembered all this rather suddenly and for reasons I still cannot articulate, I cried while remembering. The snow, and the slate-colored sky, and the weary brick of my dorm building, and then my mother’s familiar hands, holding daffodils which she had carried over nearly five hundred miles of highway.

Fairy Lights

Billy and Ashley got married this weekend. It was a sweet haphazard wedding, we ate lots of pie, Ashley forgot to throw the bouquet, I hugged cousins, and neither of my grandparents fell on the ice that coated northern Minnesota, so really the whole thing was a roaring success.

Last night my mom and I had a connecting flight from Chicago coming home. Now, I am not a city person. Three days has always been more than enough for me, and on top of that there is a nagging voice in my head which tells me I should love nature best. You know, #creation and all that. But we had a long, clear descent into Chicago at about seven-thirty their time. Seven-thirty when everyone is home and eating dinner and doing homework and watching TV and making plans and finishing laundry. Seven-thirty when all the lights are on, and dim little headlights reach out in front of sojourning cars, and streetlights duck behind trees and back out again as you pass ten thousand feet above them. There are patterns in the street plans, you know; they wind and gloam, stretching themselves into the darkness. Floodlights cast their own drops of gold, and downtown blocks form complex, glittering mountains that wink and beckon. And it is all so very vast. Forgive me if I ignore that preachy voice in my head, and tell you that is the view I love the best. I could be one of those people who live in a suspended glass box for weeks on end, just so long as mine was particularly high.

I don’t have any real metaphor to draw. I’ll leave that up to you if you’re so inclined. I’m just coming to terms with the fact that my imagination is usually wrong, because often Reality won’t fit inside of it at all. So I simply want to tell you how much I love heights and fairy lights and grandeur and distance, things endowed with impossible grace.

Distance

This weekend I went home for fall break. Almost five hundred miles, but really only eight hours. Eight hours is close. Distance makes most sense to me in terms of time. They are cousins, you see.

My grandparents’ house in Missouri, for example, is two days away, and that’s as close as Wednesday, but then again, with a plane, it’s as close as tonight.

A mile is short when I drive it and long when I run it and perfect when I walk it, but an hour is always the same. So I prefer the hour.

Distance is usually time to me, but time is often not distance. I mean that nothing, no part of life, seems far to me right now. I feel as if I stand dead center.

When I was one my daddy built a swing on the big tree in our backyard.

When I was two my mama earned her doctorate.

When I was three my friend Danny would let me have his pudding cup at snack time.

When I was four my mom would put my hair up in little fountains on top of my head.

When I was five I prayed for a little brother every night.

When I was six I got one.

When I was seven I showed off to my friends by pouring chocolate milk on my pizza at lunchtime.

When I was eight Mary and I flew to California alone and the stewardess let me pass out peanuts to all the passengers in my cabin.

When I was nine Karen and I made peanut butter fudge by candle light on a snow day.

When I was ten I learned to knit.

When I was eleven I was in such a foul mood when we got to the Grand Canyon that my mother had to order me out of the car.

When I was twelve I was a flower girl for the first and last time.

When I was thirteen I stopped hating boys.

When I was fourteen Noah and I made up my imaginary big brother, Richard.

When I was fifteen I thought I was in love.

When I was sixteen I clocked a friend in the nose one night on a golf course, but she forgave me.

When I was seventeen my grammy died and the tree with the swing fell and I cried myself to sleep.

When I was eighteen I wrote a poem.

When I was nineteen my grandma called to ask how I did the green beans that one time.

And now I am twenty, and none of these things seem distant. Forty, when I will be greying, does not seem too far, and neither does eighty-three, when I plan on being quite white.

Before dinner just now I went and sat in the prayer room and read over the journal there, whose entries date back to before I ever came here. But those people, those friends, those interceding brothers and sisters seem very close indeed. I am intended to feel that way, I think, because they are close—their ink, my hands, our cries to the same living God.

One thing seems far, though. There is a wooden cross in the prayer room. People have laid their burdens upon it. They have written their fears and sins and trespasses on notecards and nailed them to the tree, with a small hammer that lies on the floor. Purple sharpie on the stipes praises Christ for freedom, for distance from sin.

“As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.”(Psalm 103:12)

From east to west—why, whenever you get to one the other is still just as far away as it was to begin with. It can’t be done. They’re hours, days, eternities apart, a miraculously impossible distance.

Adventure is out there!

I started planning this entry on I-40 East coming home from Nashville. That has been my nice surprise of the month: I got to spend this past week in Missouri at my grandparents’, which you will have heard about in entries like this one and especially this one.

I didn’t bring my little computer at all and so was basically sans internet and mostly sans phone for over a week. I sat in the Raleigh airport a week ago Friday waiting for my flight and my head was spinning. I had just finished powering through season two of Mad Men at such a rate that sitting there I kept thinking every man I saw was Don Draper. Not that North Carolina boys are a bad-looking lot, but my, my, Alice, let’s not get carried away. My brain was fairly addled, and I felt disembodied. I felt as if I was no longer quite in possession of a self.

So here’s what I did all week: I read Tolkien, I washed a few windows, and I worked on a story. I had one white night, I watched one Jimmy Stewart movie, and I cooked some beans. I cleaned my grandma’s cabinets and went to Walmart only twice. One lovely afternoon I floated in the pool with a book and a milkshake from Tastee Treat.

I woke up a little, I think. It was a slow waking. I did not notice that I felt particularly different. Perhaps I was simply spending less time noticing myself and more time noticing the breeze on the dam of an afternoon, how many pages I had managed to fill in my little notebook, and marvelous quotes from the Hobbit to copy into it, though what I am writing is not at all a conventional adventure story. All hearty things for a kid in my condition—nothing like a computer screen to make you dwindle.

Then on Friday evening I sat in my aunt and uncle’s house watching the opening ceremonies and at the soaring shots of the countryside and the sound of the children’s choirs, I felt a near-forgotten longing. By the time all those Mary Poppinses floated down to vanquish Voldemort I had nearly lost my head.

I wanted to go. Karen and I had planned since we were sixteen to go to the 2012 Olympics. We were supposed to be there! What was I doing watching it from the couch? At the very least I was supposed to be headed there to study abroad this year. Off to visit the dear homeland of the Pevensies, the Bastables, the Mennyms, Pongo and Lady, the BFG and every other dear friend. (There is no faster way to my heart than British children’s literature.)

And thus it was that without warning I found myself saying to my mom in the car yesterday: “What if I got a job in England next summer?” Because, of course, I need money, (even at the end of this summer, I’m still scrambling for work,) but maybe I can quietly trick my scared little self into an adventure, if I make the arrangements fast, before myself notices.

I have often felt frightened and trapped and every miserable thing for the last year or so, but in the words of the indomitable Bilbo Baggins when he is trapped in a dark tunnel, lost from his friends and pursued by narsty, narsty goblins:

“Go back? No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!”

He does not even think of standing still.