Porta Potties and the Joy of Being

It’s spring here this week, really, really spring. Last night, after dinner, I walked to the store to pick up a few things. I wore only a jacket and the air was blue and soft and fragrant and on my way I saw blooms that looked like dozens of tiny daisies all crowded round together, like cluster diamond rings. Every one of my senses told me that all this was a beautiful day, but I couldn’t really feel it. 

I got what I needed at Safeway, and came out thinking about my foul mood, and how recently anytime I try to reflect on the last year I feel resentful. Perhaps then, I thought, I should focus on the here and how. Maybe if I start there, I won’t be so angry. But even that didn’t seem to be working, I was so far out of sorts. Everywhere I looked, all I saw was annoyance, so I slouched on.

And then, passing a construction site, I looked up and caught sight of a couple porta potties next to each other, one blue and one pink. And I stopped, and I stood still, and a strange feeling came over me, and I laughed. Because why, oh why would anyone go to the trouble of making aesthetic choices for a porta potty, one of the most famously man-made, utilitarian, temporary, and gross objects on the planet? I mean, if you want to have separate toilets for men and women, just a straightforward sign on the door will do the trick. And yet. At some point some manufacturer must have said, How about if we have some design options? How about if we have not only grey, but deep sea blue and bright bubble gum pink? Let’s get those going on the production line! People will love it. And then I imagined some site manager or someone, when planning for the build, had looked at the pictures and gone, Ooooh, yes, let’s mix and match a little, and order a few of each color, then we’ll alternate them for visual contrast once we get them on site! What fun! The more I thought about it, the less I could think of any other explanation.

So I stood there and kept on grinning, because the color of a pair of porta potties was all superfluous joy. There was no reason for them to be this way, and yet here they were. In fact, because of the porta potties, I had trouble getting home. My feet moved me very slowly. I kept getting started and then just stopping and standing there in giggling, grateful reverence, and then needed to remind myself to keep walking.

My body, which on the way over had resisted all the delicate, sublime urgings of creation itself to rejoice, was now responding with fierce delight to the absurdity of colored plastic boxes full of human waste. 

There’ll always be something, friends, there’ll always be something.

Morning Rest

I have a few different notes and lists stuck up next to my bed. I’m a great lover of lists. One of them is titled “Goals,” and the first item on it says “Get better at mornings.” If you would like to know what I mean by this I’m not really sure myself, except that the first hour or so of my day, when I’m pulling myself out of sleep, is usually when I feel most frustrated, most frightened, and least rested. And I’d like it if that wasn’t always the case.

Rest, real rest, is hard, apparently. I remember discovering this way back in undergrad, but for all of us within the last year, the definition and attainment of real rest has gotten especially fuzzy. We’ve done much of our working, relaxing, escaping, talking, worrying, waiting, sleeping, playing, trying and then failing to love our neighbors, and checking the latest news all within the same confining walls. It’s hard to know what the boundaries are anymore. Everything we do starts to bleed together. And the ability to rest, already so difficult, falls deep into the cracks.

Thus I’ve set this entirely unmeasureable “get better” goal for myself and have made small, gentle amounts of progress towards it, towards occasionally being propelled into morning prayer by something other than a foul, anxious mood, but it’s been a real effort, a back and forth between numbing myself from feeling and a vigilant monitoring of my habits and thoughts. I’m striving for peace, but usually failing.

And then late Thursday morning, I took the bus into Regent for a library shift. A little over halfway there, around the time we passed Wallace Street, I realized that without deciding to I’d tipped my head against the window, a little sleepy, eyes half-closed. And as I leaned there I was thinking slow, wandering, insignificant thoughts about who-knows-what for the first time in a long, long while. Rest had come upon me unbidden, as gift, without me even choosing it. Trees and houses floated past and I sunk deeper, softer into my seat. I almost missed pulling the cord for my stop.

So here I am in the stillness of Holy Saturday, the enchanting effects of that rest from Thursday long gone, my own weary, cyclical strivings to be better at mornings (and all things) firmly back in play. Yet that moment on the bus stands as witness—as I find moments on the bus often do—that rest is a thing given, not attained, and it can come upon us wonderfully like surprise, like resurrection.

On Leaving Vancouver Like This

I graduate from Regent in May and I have less than three months left in Vancouver. Despite the fact that the past year has crept along at an agonizingly slow pace for so many of us, three months doesn’t seem like much time. And as I expressed here a few weeks ago, I am very ready to be back in the States. But part of that, if I’m being honest, is because leave-taking is hard. I’d like to skip this part, and just move on to the future already.

Leaving Vancouver and Regent right now, in their semi-hibernated-covid states, feels like having to say goodbye to someone you love very much while they sleep. 

There are upsides to this, of course. I’m an emotional person, but not a demonstratively sentimental one, so I’ve never been big on sloppy, drawn-out goodbyes. It’s sounded appealing recently to just detach from community and place here, to stop paying attention to how beautiful the mountains are and how the bus hums, even to pull back from my close friendships in preparation for slipping out the back door of this place at the beginning of the summer. I could latch it quietly, I’m sure, and no-one would be the wiser. In my more socially awkward moments I’ve certainly polished my own version of the unannounced exit. 

And yet to sever ties like that, to pull myself in and bundle myself away so as not to deal with the ungainly mess of an ill-timed farewell doesn’t do justice to what this place and people and experience has meant to me. 

Also, despite my self-protective dreams of timely emotional detachment, I haven’t really been handling things so neatly. For the past few weeks I’ve gotten up and written in my journal and worked library shifts and had meetings and read books and interviewed folks for my guided study and gone for walks and made stew and small talk and advised friends on life decisions. And yet, I’ve still found myself for at least a couple hours a day sitting and watching the sleeping giant of my time here, contemplating what has come and gone in and around and through me.

If things were more wakeful and normal, I wouldn’t be doing so much of this contemplation. There would be overwhelming busy-ness and distractions and parties and occasions, and they’d all be punctuated with occasional short, nostalgic conversations about time and how it flies, sometimes with close friends and sometimes with acquaintances. And I would blink and it would be over and we’d all hug and I’d move away and write a blog entry about it that wouldn’t be bogged down by questionable existential metaphors about sleep.

But that doesn’t happen to be the way of things now, here, for me. Existential metaphor is my lot at the moment. Trying to say goodbye in this way, on my own, means I have time and space to think of everything that’s happened. I think of regrets and embarrassments and disappointments and the occasional frustration. And sometimes, if I am very brave and allow myself to dive down deep, I think of the good things too. I think of a lot of laughter and a lot of conversations and a lot of pictures of my feet that I took at bus-stops in my first month here. I think of sidewalks I’ve walked down and beaches I’ve stood on and bowls of soup I’ve eaten and ferries I’ve taken and a whole lot of people who’ve sat down beside me–so many of those. I think of hands and flowers and washing dishes. All these things are a bit sharp and painful in my chest, and that reminds me that they’re worth writing a story about some time. For me, they’ve already been one.

But more than that, the place itself will wake all the way up one day, probably not long after I go. It’ll rise and shine and then we’ll all come back and have a party–not a good-bye party, but a hello one. (That’s the dream, at least.)

Spring Talking

The other day the sun was out and I took a walk. I only got so far as crossing the street and then there were crowds of crocuses standing brazenly in the grass, as if they’d always been there and we’d all just forgot to look at them. They were the big purple kind which I’d never seen till I moved here and which always make me catch my breath. But they also made me think of the ones I grew up with, the sacred first sign of spring—small, delicate, and canary yellow—peeking up around the corners of the grey slate paving stones which lead up to my parents’ blue side porch.

Then I took myself all the way down Yew Street to Kits Beach.

The evening after I took that walk (or maybe it was the next evening altogether) I read two chapters of Wind in the Willows aloud to my housemates (the first and fifth because those are the best ones). I made it through Chapter Five without crying, but just barely. The little monologue in which Mole explains to Rat how he had wanted to stop and go back to see his little home, but his friend hadn’t listened to him, is really rather raw (more raw than last time I read it, at least). That “spirit of divine discontent and longing” that Kenneth Grahame talks about has come early for me this year.

I’m homesick. I’m homesick for America and for road trips and for new jeans and high heels and for friends’ couches and for Pilot Mountain and for fresh tacos and for laughter and quiet and Yeats’ bee-loud glade. I’m homesick for what was and for what’s next. I’m homesick for Lord-only-knows-what. 

Only the Lord may know for now, but when I do see it, like the crocuses, then I’m sure I’ll know it. I’ll be like Mole coming upon Rat’s little boat, Mole whose “whole heart went out to it at once, even though he did not yet fully understand its uses.” 

Broken Ice

It’s February. February always gets to me and this year I think it’s gotten to everybody. For my part I’ve spent the last week or so ruminating over the realization that it’s vulnerable to hand my work off to someone else for feedback, to let it out of my control. As I face a second revision of my novel, I’m suddenly very aware that I don’t quite take naturally to creative collaboration, that when doing what I love, I like to work alone.

Then this morning, I had a library shift. Around noon I wheeled a cart out from behind the circulation desk to shelve some books and saw movement out in the garden. Regent’s library is underground and to the west there are tall sliding windows that face onto a small rectangular reflective pool and three sharp tiers of a much-beloved vegetable garden which lead up to street level. I haven’t seen a human being in that space in months. Yet before my eyes were three boys scrambling down the ladders which lead from one tier to another, leaping like monkeys, clearly drawn by the lure of the icy pool below. One of them immediately swept up an eight or ten foot garden stake which lay unused. Then they saw me standing a few yards away and all three froze, the smallest with the stake poised above the pool. 

The boys stared at the librarian lady and I stared back. For the briefest of moments I contemplated rapping on the glass and telling them off which was clearly what they expected, but then sanity prevailed. They were hoodlums certainly, but small ones—the oldest was no more than thirteen. And besides, I understood. I understood in the depths of my soul what they had come to do. It’s been colder than usual for Vancouver-winter the last few days, and every time I’ve walked past those windows I too have found that dull, wrinkled ice enticing. How thick is it really? I wonder. Surely paper thin… But what if it was thick enough to crunch when broken? What if it could take the weight of a leaf, a stick, a toe? And imagine how a stomp would do it in…

So with a nod of respectful approval, I turned my back and pushed away my cart of books as the boys got down to work, though I desperately wanted to stay and watch. In the next few minutes, I passed by as often as I could, praying they would not get caught by anyone else. But things are quiet here still and no one else materialised. Best of all, the ice was thicker and putting up more of a fight than expected—they were only able to make cracks and gouges, no matter what weapons they used to attack it. For some reason its hardiness delighted me. On my third pass by I expected at least one would have gained the courage to step out and test the water with his own weight but instead I saw only the disappearing heels of the smallest as he climbed the highest garden ladder, the long stake still in tow. I stopped again and gazed out over the garden, mourning their absence and wondered idly if they would carry that huge garden stake all the way down Wesbrook Mall. 

And then, up above at ground level, the tip of the wood stake appeared hesitantly over one of the railings. I grinned. Oh, how I had underestimated my friends. They knew physics. They knew about gravity. There was a thump and a clatter as it fell. 

They did not return to retrieve it. Accepting, I think, of the failure of their venture, they left the stake nestled on ice which was still only just cracked, a testament to a valiant, collaborative attempt at joyful destruction. Still smiling, I went to find a pen to take notes.

Scope for the Imagination

I got the first dose of the covid vaccine last week. My sister told me the day before that I needed to take a selfie at the exact moment I got the shot and post it on every social media channel immediately, so that people would know. I told her I absolutely wouldn’t. But I am writing this blog entry, so, you know…

For many people the vaccine symbolizes hope—hope for health and light and a return to normalcy—and I do think there is truth to that, but over the last few days I’ve found myself thinking not about how this will change things going forward but about the actual experience of getting vaccinated.

This pandemic was hard and then we got used to it and now, it seems, it has gotten hard again. Here in BC, we’ve been in the grey time of the year for months now, and restrictions are such that, with the exception of those we live with, we can only see one another one at a time, out in the cold rain. Classes are still entirely online. We know things will get better, but we can’t be certain when, and there is no way to mark the future, to make definite plans for joy. We have only the huddled, breath-holding present. There doesn’t seem to be much of Anne Shirley’s fabled “scope for the imagination” just about now. 

I know some people are flatly afraid to hope at this point because they can’t bear to be disappointed, and pessimism feels safe. I’m typically in the opposite camp. I can’t bear not to hope, because otherwise how would I manage to get up in the morning into each new day? Yet recently, with the way everything has felt hemmed in to this current sodden moment, my realist streak has been making its presence felt and I can sympathize with the pessimists in our midst. I remind myself more often than is necessary how long it will take to distribute this vaccine, how much longer after that before people feel safe.

Last Thursday morning my appointment was at 9:20 at the spinal cord clinic at VGH. I briefly waited in one of two lines into a parking lot, then was directed around the corner between tall hospital buildings with foliage pasted on the side and waited in another line for longer. At each checkpoint I was asked which dose I was getting and where I worked (they’re mainly vaccinating care home workers and other health professionals at this point). I noticed that some other people waiting were clutching important-looking yellow slips for dear life, and I wondered what they meant and whether I ought to have one. 

Once I got inside I traded my cloth mask for a medical one and after again confirming where I worked, but still not being asked for ID, I was directed to a table where a woman politely introduced herself, asked me the various screening questions which we’re all so used to by now, and had me fill out a form. When I was finished she handed me a copy of the form, which turned out to be the precious yellow slip, and sent me on to a nurse who also politely introduced herself before asking me a couple questions about my allergies. I’ll freely confess that I don’t remember either of their names but I still liked that they told them to me.

Then she gave me the shot, which ached more than it stung. After, she told me to “follow the orange wall” (a phrase I really liked for some reason) to the after-care room where I would sit for fifteen minutes to make sure I didn’t die. (That’s not quite the way she put it, but I inferred.) The room was populated by a crowd of thirty or forty distanced chairs, with two bored (but still polite) nurses observing in the corner. We were our own time-keepers. Some people chatted, but most sat still and silent, like obedient children waiting at the designated meeting spot on a family day out, coats on and bags clutched on our laps. I was tempted to leave early, but I sat out my full time, because that’s what you do.

Then I left the building cradling the yellow slip which would enable me to get my second dose, and walked back to the hospital parking deck, which is miraculously free to everyone for an unspecified period of time. And I drove home. Getting the vaccine felt normal, which is not what I expected, but so it goes. 

Yet, like I said, I keep thinking about it, about how normal-and-not-normal it was. How normal-and-not-normal all of this is. And I can’t seem to shake it. So perhaps there is scope for the imagination here, in this ashen in-between. The present, after all, is always the point in time which most nearly touches on eternity. And eternity is full of hope.

Advent Poem

I went for a walk after dark just now. (Everything’s after dark these days.) On some quiet, straight street in Kerrisdale, I realized I was nursing a bit of a broken heart. Not because of anything in particular, just one of those cracks in yourself that sometimes makes itself loud and painful for an hour or a day before receding back into silence.

I told God about my little broken heart and then stomped along for another twenty minutes or so, wondering why he didn’t do anything about it. I pulled my coat around me tight even though it wasn’t that cold.

I came to a turn where the ridge of the neighborhood dropped away before me so that all the lights of downtown glittered there. I didn’t find it as beautiful as I knew I should have. I passed a Christmas tree sale, smelled Douglas fir, and was annoyed. I thought of the list of poems I’d put together for Advent and rolled my eyes at my own eager efforts. 

Then I wondered what if, just for now, I stopped trying to sort through all this peripheral beauty—the lights and the trees and the words and the colors. I was clearly too much of a philistine for all that tonight anyway. What if I just let Advent itself be the poem?

I stopped halfway down the hill. I stood still and looked out over the city again. My vision softened. I waited. 

The poem then was this: God sees that everything’s dark these days, and the Son says, Shall I go? Shall I go and live and die there? God says, Yes. So the Son shows up not in a chariot, but in a womb, is born a human baby to a wide-eyed mother and her wide-eyed Joseph. He grows up into a God-man who is good to his word: he lives and he dies and then, quite overwhelmingly, he lives again. The Son ascends back up to heaven at the end of the poem, but his coming has left every beacon burning behind him.

So if Advent is the poem, I thought, standing on the sidewalk, then we can look out over the dark landscape and see every hill ablaze with holy hope. We can run wide-eyed to those tongues of promise-fire, holding out the largeness and the smallness of our mangled, poorly-pasted hearts, and say, You’ll take this? Even this? And no matter how often we, like anxious children, repeat the question, the steadfast Advent poem will always say, Yes.

Thanksgiving Week 2020, Vancouver

In the last few weeks, new Covid restrictions have gone into place in BC. I know that as we’re moving into the dark grey part of the year here many people around me are feeling anxious, discouraged, sad. I have to confess though—I’ve been happy. The quieter things become here, the more I write, the more unnecessary layers I put on to walk in the forest, the more comfort food I eat, the more often I clean my room (it always needs it), and the more pleasant my to-do list becomes. 

On Tuesday when I went into school to work my library shift, I waited for the bus mid-morning in restless November weather. The wind blew up and the rain whipped round me as if it had something to say. I spent the first couple hours of my shift frantically pulling books for curbside pick-up. It’s paper season and since people aren’t allowed to browse the stacks themselves right now, they request whole shelf-fulls. In fact, all day I found that we were all, myself included, a little more needy than usual. People needed extra books they’d forgotten to put on hold, weren’t sure which of the multi-volume set they actually wanted and had to pause to flip through and decide, kept hanging around just to chat a little. It reminded me of some of the sweeter aspects of my job teaching—many of us, I realized, seemed to have gone back to seventeen with anxiety glowing in our eyes.

As I left for the day at three-thirty, I was rushing, juggling bags, fumbling to get my mask off and on with gloved hands. I emerged into a world that was pregnant with light. The sky had been slate grey for weeks, and now a thick orange sweetness, like honey, was leaking out not from behind the clouds, but from beneath them, nudging itself into every nook and cranny, catching in its path the last of the fall leaves which we’d stopped noticing, reflecting off sharp glass buildings with startling transcendence. One part of the sky had opened up blue and in it there was a huge rainbow, so large I could not see it end to end. As I rode home on the bus, we passed many people standing on sidewalks and medians, their faces upturned, staring at it, drinking the light.

Sometimes late at night when I curl up in bed and wait to fall asleep, as I allow my mind to toddle off in various directions, I find that I am crying. But I am thankful for the tears. For a while I couldn’t cry. And now I can. Hopkins says, Peace “comes with work to do…He comes to brood and sit.”

Manna and the Dreamers

As of this month, this blog is a whole ten years old and I had forgotten until last week. Life goes so fast and is sometimes so strange, but I am grateful. 

Once, in my presence, my mom mentioned my blog to a friend. “Oh, what does she write about on there?” the woman asked. “She writes about herself,” my mom said, ever matter-of-fact. It’s true. I do. And when I was eighteen and nineteen, it was even more so. I wrote about the minutiae of my small-town college life, dropping friends’ names and occasional inside jokes left, right, and center. As I’m sure is patently clear, I’ve become a very serious, cautious grown-up now, so I don’t do that anymore. I’ve moved on to larger visions.

And yet. This last month or two, I have had the urge to dream big about things—about the future, about my writing, about the world in which we live. It’s an exhilarating feeling, but all this time I have been tethered by the practical and sometimes frustrating realities of my current circumstances: the closed borders, the anemic bank balances, the incorrigible uncertainties. When I was about sixteen I went through a particularly quixotic phase in which I liked to assign colors to my days when I wrote about them in my journal—and the worst of these, the days that were like regurgitated cardboard, were always tan. It is easy just now, when comparing this trudging time to the glitter of my dreams, to classify every day as tan. But to do so would not be fair or true. Because there has been manna—small, perfect morsels fallen at my feet from heaven, day by day by day.

I spent a Sunday with the house to myself, listening to podcasts and cleaning the bathroom.

The fall leaves in Vancouver this year are gold and red, which I was prepared for, but also all sorts of ombres of orange and green and blushing pink, which I wasn’t.

The other day I used my black school bag for the first time since March.

Saturday night was the birthday party of a dear friend. We huddled outside around two firepits, roasted marshmallows which singed our fingers when we ate them, listened to and half-watched a long playlist of folk tunes on Youtube. We were very, very happy.

I ride the bus some days.

I spent an hour this morning pulling books from shelves for a much-anticipated guided study next term, until I had a tall pile.

And I’ve been rewatching some of the best TV ever made: Grand Designs and Mad Men—both of which turn me into Miss Rumphius when I finish an episode, eager to step out into the world and make it more beautiful, more beautiful with lupines or homes or words.

We know what manna is because Exodus tells us how God provided for his people in the desert. They were there much longer than they ever thought they would be, wandering round and round while hoping for the promised land through decades of wilderness, eating the sweet, particular nourishment which God sent straight out of the sky. And as they fed on it, they dreamed.

A Child at the Ocean

I went to Galiano Island with a couple sweet friends for a few days over the weekend and stayed one day longer than they did. First thing Sunday morning, I dropped them off at the ferry, then drove back to the cabin, took a bath, and climbed down the rocks to the water in my bare feet and big orange sweater.

I felt sad—sad that my friends were gone, sad about everything—but I was grateful to be sad. I am beginning to think of sadness as a privilege. Pain and fear are universal, but sadness can only be where happiness has been first. More and more I think the two are near cousins.

It was chilly on the rock. The tide was low and fog mixed with smoke from the fires in Washington sat on the water, painting all things a thick, soft grey. As I sat three otters swam up right beneath me, slithering and dunking in and out of the water, then when they reached the shore, shaking the wet out of their eyes like dogs, and gleefully crunching up some kind of snack they had found on the rocks just below. The mother caught sight of me almost immediately, kept an intent watch on me for about thirty seconds and then decided I was too close for comfort and led her little ones away. They went with her, happily jumping on her back and somersaulting and sliding back into the water again.

I thought about how little I knew about these creatures—the only vocabulary I had to describe them was hackneyed and uncertain—how little I knew about any of this. I didn’t even know how the tide worked. I felt like a child come to the ocean for the first time, but with no parent by my side to turn to and pepper with questions: why does the tide ebb away like it does? And more importantly, where does it go when it leaves? Does all the water that was here just tip over to the other side of the ocean—as the water pulls back from us, it rises on some distant beach in Asia? I imagined the Pacific like a bowl, a cradle, rocked daily back and forth by the hand of God, salt and water and life sloshing up first on one side and then the other. What lullaby did he sing over us? Was it the plaintive seagull cries wheeling above me or something even beyond that?

Part of me felt I should rein in my flight of imagination—how could I not know the science behind the tides, and who was I to make up fairy tales in their place? But I couldn’t help myself. Crouching there on that great grey rock, just above where the barnacles began, I was the youngest I had been in a long time—the saddest and the least certain and the most content. It occurred to me that I hadn’t known that I would have to become younger to grow up—but I ought to have known. I was told all along, unless you become like little children