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

A Love Letter to July

I used to name blog entries after months much more often. In fact, if you were to dig back (please don’t) December and February actually ended up with two each over the years.

It seemed like a simple thing to do, to just say, here’s this month, for what it’s worth.  But I haven’t written like that in a while and just at present we are all in the midst of a seemingly interminable period of tension and unpredictability and confusion. There doesn’t appear to be much good reason to write about now. I’d rather hurry on past now, to be honest. I’d like to get to later as soon as possible.

But perhaps there is something valuable in taking stock of what’s currently around me, of not comparing it to my wider expectations and hopes (of which I have so, so many), of just saying, yes, okay then, this here is July. It may have strange privations and discomforts, but it has its own abundance as well.

I’ve just started a part time job in a long-term care home and my commute to West Van takes me through Stanley Park and across Lions Gate Bridge each time, inching in slow traffic through trees and low clouds and over the wide-stretching water. I get to deliver flowers to residents on their birthdays. I get to sit next to them and fill in a print out of a mandala with an unreliable set of washable markers and together we watch its petals slowly fill with color. I get to hold old ladies’ hands as I paint their nails, listen to them exclaim over and over at how nice it is to have the ugly chipped polish off, and isn’t this new red so beautiful.

On days when I’m not working, there’s blue, blue sky and sun on my shoulders and pasta salad. I get to watch my friend Lorna exclaim over every single fern in the UBC botanical garden. I get to read poetry in a backyard. I get to eat cherry jam with a spoon. I get to walk through golden summer grass in a school field that’s all going to seed and I get to take my car through the car wash. When I was a very little girl I used to be afraid of the car wash. I would cry, and a parent would hold my hand—it was dark and it roared at me from all sides. But now it is precious to me to sit alone in the dappled, swirling dim as the colorful splatter of suds is rinsed away, washes in torrents down the sides of the car, allowing the light back in. 

And friends, I get to write. I get to pile words in a heap and see what they yield.

A week or two ago, I got a card from my mom. Usually her cards have a Picasso reproduction or an old sketch from a 1940’s Vogue printed on them. But this one had only words on the front. It was a couple lines from a very tiny Emily Dickinson poem which I’d never read before: “Not knowing when the dawn will come, I open every door.”

So this here is July.

Quarantine Sundays

I spent the last week trying to pull together an entry that was really high-minded and meaningful, but then trashed it in favor of what follows. Sorry. In some ways, this one is more for my own personal future reference than for any outside readership.

I look back over the last weeks of my journal and I find there is a pattern. I realize that Sundays have usually been the hardest.

I’ve never been good at sabbath. I procrastinate too much all the other days, and my work has always seemed to bleed over, so I’ve never really learned to treat it as something special in the way I ought. But now the world is holding its breath and things move so slow (when things move at all) that I find even when I’ve spent ample amounts of time dawdling all week, I can afford to have a mostly free day on Sunday. 

And these still Sundays are hard days. I feel waterlogged, crumpled into myself, bogged down with tired. Within the extra quiet my fears get loud and so I journal and I read and I watch sitcoms and I call my mom and I sit on the floor and look at the sky out the window. And I know I could go for a walk, but I did that yesterday. (I’m sure Vancouver is always beautiful in the spring, but I strongly suspect that it has never before been as beautiful as it was this past week.) Finally, I think to myself that this rest thing is frankly pretty exhausting and I might need to spend the next several days recovering from it.

My church service is in the evening, and when I do at last sit down for that with my housemates, it helps. It honestly does. In a way that I cannot always manage to choose on my own, it takes me gently by the shoulders and guides me a few steps backwards so my view’s a little wider. Don’t look so close, honey, it whispers.

Backing up is often frightening. I am increasingly realizing that I don’t like the unknown. I’d rather lean into the here and now, my nose close to the glass of it, peering around for decisions I can make which will help me feel safe, for things I can control. So at first when I back up I shiver because I look in both directions and all I see is blankness and more uncertainty. I don’t know what will come next in my life now, and I don’t know how much any of those other things I did a couple months ago in the other lifetime really mattered, so I end up feeling a bit like Ozymandias with the barren sands of time stretching out on either side.

But if I stay backed up just a little longer, if I dig my toes into those sands and take a few deep breaths of fresh air, I begin to remember that my constantly-droning inner monologue is not the only voice in existence, that it is not always the infallible truth-teller I imagine it to be. And I perhaps remember that, faithful as he’s always been, the Lord holds his tired, befuddled children in his hands, even on quarantine Sundays.

Fear and Gardens in Pandemic-Time

It has been raining here all week, in the way that Vancouver does—gradually, quietly, uncertainly—but the other day my housemate began to resuscitate the front garden. She cleared out pine needles and tied the ivy back from rows of big blue planter pots. The puppy assisted vigilantly, mostly by getting muddy. Everyone was glad. There are plans, I think, for much more of the same.

And yet we are still tired here, still anxious, sometimes still downright sad and afraid. The days are full of these ups and downs. Vacillating wildly between worried paralysis and easy distractions from it seems to be the new mode of existence for so many of us, but it can’t possibly be what we’re called to. I think perhaps our central question comes down to this: How do we manage in these conditions? What does it mean to live abundantly when fear has come to dwell so obviously among us?

A coherent answer to that question seems almost impossible to me, and perhaps to you. But while watching Christina beam over her work in the garden, I remembered something I wrote a few years ago, and I’ve decided it’s time I preach to myself. It’s an entry called “Permission to Fear,” and I wrote it during my first year of teaching, many lifetimes ago. 

So on the advice of my 22-year-old self I’m going to have a talk with my fear, with our fear. Fine, I know you’re here for a while, I will say. Here’s a chair. Have a seat somewhere out of the way. If you have something to say, I suppose you may say it, but don’t be surprised if I say something right back. And even then, don’t get too comfortable. You’re not here to stay forever. Then, with this strange new house-guest in my heart, I will wash my hands and I will do the next thing.

I idly asked for watercolors the other day and an hour or two ago, Christina unearthed an old art set in her closet and presented it triumphantly at my bedroom door. So there is a next thing. Wherever we find gardens now, we will tend them: the bread that needs baking, the herbs that need growing, the Zoom meetings that need having, the toilets that need cleaning, the children that need bathing, the piano that needs playing, the friends that need calling, the poem that needs writing, the prayers that need praying.

So tend to these things—gradually, quietly, uncertainly. Sow these seeds, and sow them while weeping if need be. That is scriptural. The psalmist says those who sow with tears will reap with joy, so perhaps there is even particular holiness and blessing to living on this razor’s edge to which God has led us. Tears, after all, will water the earth.

Yesterday a work crew was out in our little neighborhood, trimming the plum trees. When I came downstairs I found that Melanie had gone after and collected the cut branches that they would have mulched—armfuls and armfuls of them it seemed like—and was arranging them in every vase she could find. The little blue kitchen was full of pink blossoms every way I looked.