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.

Home Nostalgia

I am halfway through a two-week-and-change long Christmas at home in the States, and probably predictably, I’ve been thinking about familiarity and nostalgia a lot.

Nostalgia has been a part of me all of my life. When we were little girls, my sister and I would lie awake in bed remembering details of trips and Christmases and classmates and cousins, so I was well-versed in this sort of wistfulness even before I was a teenager. Then in college, when I started this blog, I began to use nostalgia consciously and regularly in my writing, opening it reverently like a map, searching through the criss-crossed veins of my life for the little arrow that announced, “YOU ARE HERE.” And now I realize more and more that everywhere, but especially in my writing, nostalgia is simply part of the air I breathe. I approach all of my doings and beings as things I do remember, will remember, want to remember.

But even with all this careful remembering, things fall off the edge of consciousness at times, and when they are brought back to the center of my vision, I jump just a little. Even just over a week in, this visit has been full of familiarities I did not expect, things I did not realize I was homesick and starving for till I was in their midst. There’s the way my otherwise well-mannered family confidently talks over one another, sometimes all five of us at once (I wonder who we think is listening?), and there’s the bright sunshine-gold of the upstairs hallway in my childhood home, and then there’s simply the neighborhood I grew up in with all its sweet, porched houses and their thoughtful brickwork, bright, paned windows, and occasionally peeling trim. These houses look like they are loved or at least were loved once as opposed to many of the homes on the west side of Vancouver some of which look like the people who built them never even considered loving them at all.

But the thing which hit me with the largest, most pungent wave of nostalgia was the day after my cousin’s wedding in Houston when nearly thirty of my family crowded into the living room of my uncle’s AirBnB and sang Christmas carols out of the old books from my grandma’s house. As we always used to, we sat all over couches and the floor, leaning against arms of chairs and one another’s knees, and worked our way from the youngest person in the room to the oldest, each of us choosing a carol in turn. I think we nearly ran through the whole book. We sounded good, especially at the beginning before our voices got tired. No experience has ever felt as well-worn and comprehendable to me as that one, despite the fact that, with the exception of gentle teasings and confusions as we made our way through the age line-up, all our words were laced through with the mystery of the incarnation.

A few weeks ago, during a class discussion, a professor gloomily announced to us that nostalgia was “a hell of a drug.” I know what he was getting at, that it can act as an excuse for unhelpful or even destructive patterns, but it will come as no surprise that I’m sitting here now fully prepared to gently push back at some of the assumptions lying perhaps unexamined beneath that statement.

To believe that nostalgia is inherently dangerous because it lulls us asleep misses the point of nostalgia. The only nostalgia which does this is a nostalgia which idealizes its object, but the purpose of nostalgia, the reason I cling to it, the reason it fills so many songs and poems and Christmas ornaments, the reason it sticks to our ribs like it does, is that if we’re willing to look right through the beloved familiar with eyes wide open, nostalgia can wake us right up to what’s on the other side.

The reason I love the color of the upstairs hallway in my parents’ house is not only because it is bright, but because I chose it. One summer when I was in my late teens, I was left home alone for a week, and with high hopes for my productivity, my parents left me with the request that I would repaint the hallway. So I went to Home Depot, chose paint the color of sunshine, and spent three days rolling it onto textured puce walls that hadn’t been touched since the seventies. It took four coats, partly because of the vomitous color I was covering, but also because I kept painting secret messages for myself in large letters and then needing to cover them up fully. I giggled a lot. I remember feeling happy and independent and capable and full of promise. I am nostalgic about those walls not because I want to numb myself to adult life or be seventeen again (God forbid!) but because to me, they sing, they shout with hope and fresh life. And that’s a lesson I can stand to remember again and again.

Oh, give me the chance to do my very best.

Seer and Seen

I have been working in little fits and starts and pokes over the last week or so on an entry about God’s gentleness, and how it has been especially evident to me in this season of my life, but it has occurred to me that just recently, I have not necessarily been behaving gentle myself or as if I believe God is gentle with me. So perhaps if I were to post that a few people in my life might feel it was tinged with hypocrisy… Thus there has been a change of plans. Instead I am going to tell you about something which seems to me simpler, but just as true, and just as difficult to believe.

For the last few days I have been fiddling around with a little what-could-one-day-be-a-poem. If it were ever to be born properly, it would be called “Seer,” but I don’t think it will ever emerge into the light of any one else’s eyes, because I think Luci Shaw has already written it several times over. Instead, I will just tell you here what it was wanting to say: God is much more busy seeing me than I usually give him credit for.

He is seeing me when I leave half-finished blog entries and poems scattered at my feet.

He is seeing the cinnamon I put in my oatmeal.

He is seeing me parking my car in the same spot every weekday.

He is seeing me run my fingers along the top of the circulation desk at the library as I move to help a waiting patron.

He is seeing me arrange books in leaning piles on my bed to write first one paper then another.

He is seeing me sitting on the floor of the entryway of my house talking to my mother on the phone.

He is seeing me shuffling through old fall leaves which I hope will not stick to my boots.

He is seeing me remind myself about dinner.

He is seeing me drive late past the huge glowing Christmas tree on Valley.

He is seeing me lose track of the conversation my friends are having and look instead out the window into the dark.

He is seeing me going through the familiar motions of digging for words and setting them up next to each other, teaching them to be friends.

He is seeing me fall asleep, later than I should, curled tight into a comfortered ball.

He is seeing me.

He is seeing.

And—if I may end where I began—he is gentle.

This Too Shall Pass

My time at Regent is starting to feel short, which is funny because if all goes according to my (current) plan, I’m still less than halfway through it.

Nearly everything in the here and now feels like gift: shiny shoes, tired eyes, slim volumes of poetry, sky that turns to gloom so early we are left reading in glow of lamplight at five pm, the walk through UBC to see my favorite books, a friend waving at me two-handed in the library, and the pattering sound of the people of God in Korean-style prayer yesterday, speaking to our Lord separately but also all together.

And I am most particularly aware in the last few days of the small acts of love offered by those around me. Over a year ago, as I was settling in to Regent, I wrote an entry about receiving the kindness of others and how it was a difficult, but needed, transition for me after teaching. But the goodness so often given to me now has a different, deeper flavor to it, because now, these people offering their hands to me in ways I do not deserve, they’re no longer nearly-strangers. They’re friends. They know what I need and I know what it costs them to give it. And yet, I am inundated here by unsought gentlenesses: a letter in my box, thoughtful suggestions of what particular courses I would love next term or next summer, food shared without ceremony, immediate patience and forgiveness when I am suddenly reactive or awkward, or simply someone who is inexplicably pleased to see me. 

Once I would have seen these unmerited offerings and kindnesses only as damning evidence of my own need and failure, reminders of my capacity to fumble with what I’ve been given so that others are regularly having to come in and pick up the pieces. But gradually I am learning to see them as more, much more. These, too, I am learning to see as gift, heavy in their humility and their glory.

Yet, like I said, my time here already seems marked with an expiration date, and even these acts of love and the bright eyes that offer them seem ephemeral and fast-moving. I’m having to learn these enormous lessons on the fly. I will not always be here in this place, slogging through this exegesis book, wearing this green velvet vest, walking on these autumn leaves, supported by this stubbornly present community. All these things will pass.

But I will walk away into the rest of my years bearing a hundred messy thumbprints of now. And I have a hunch that with time, they will not fade, but instead deepen and multiply, an ever-accumulating revelation that grace endures. Grace endures and burns bright. My eyes can handle a little more of the light today.

Limits

On Friday morning, I walked from Regent in spitting, non-committal Vancouver rain over to VST, another theology school attached to UBC. I had strained some previously anonymous muscle in the back of my knee the day before and was trying to baby it, but there was work for my research assistant job to catch up on and this library had a couple of books I wanted to see. So, trying heroically neither to feel sorry for myself nor to limp, I went. 

When I arrived, umbrella-less and therefore damp, I found that the library itself was tiny, tucked away, no bigger than a single public school classroom, and boasted a total of, I think, six study carrels. Despite the size I couldn’t find what I was looking for, and when I asked the librarian for help she told me that the items I wanted were in storage, and eagerly put up an apologetic sign at the diminutive circulation desk, pulled on her coat, and headed off to some mysterious other building. I sat and waited in the stillness which breathed back and forth between grey walls and a carpet I now can’t remember the color of. I felt a bit faint and tired (for interested parties, I had eaten breakfast) but also warm and content in this room with shelves so short and unimposing that I could see over all of them and out the opposite window from where I sat. When my new friend returned, she had brought me more than I asked for. This trend continued over the next few minutes as I began to read and the pile of books beside me grew, through no effort of my own. I dwindled and dawdled there for a while.

It occurs to me that my favorite spaces recently (or maybe always) have been small ones. I think of the RCSA office on the lower level at Regent, which is little more than a glorified closet, but a closet with a place to hang my coat, to make tea, with lamps that turn on with a satisfying click, and a couch where I can plant myself. I think also of my little front bedroom here on Yew St., almost always a mess, and full of a mishmash of my own things (dresses, pens, maps, a poster from Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia) and the things that lived here long before my time (beaded baskets, expired passports, a stuffed Pooh Bear, a green paperback Canterbury Tales.) And I think of the first small space I ever loved, of perhaps the first wonder I was ever conscious of feeling: the tiny layered world contained between the covers of a book. How is it that a whole wide cosmos, big enough to get lost in, can fit into my right hand?

I’m waxing poetic because I read a novel today. Thank God for Sunday.

Island Songs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Within Love

I’m a little hectic right now, though the Fall term hasn’t started yet: vaguely over-committed with just one too many writing projects, one too many side jobs, one too many email inboxes, one too many friends. Wait, no, that can’t be right—but I can’t find my spare car key right now. That’s the main thing. (No, no it’s not.)

Particularly when I feel like this, it is easy to forget. It is easy to forget the real main thing: to love the Lord your God. And when I realize I’ve forgotten—well, realizing somehow does not fix things. I say, Alright now, Alice, remedy the situation. Learn to love. Do it right, for God’s sake. And I come at the thing from the direction of my love instead of his, which is magnificently ineffective.

Then yesterday, I came across this in Lewis’ “Weight of Glory.” It was not a lightning-bolt, but instead a low, rumbling comfort, like thunder from the far side of the mountain.

How God thinks of us is not only more important, but infinitely more important. Indeed, how we think of Him is of no importance except in so far as it is related to how He thinks of us[…]to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son—it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.

So it is. And so I’ve been remembering (the proper, continual remedy for spiritual forgetfulness.) I’ve been remembering the taste of things. I wrote a series of poems for a course I took on food last Fall about how the memories which are inevitably tied to certain foods for each of us can serve as a gateway into the transcendent. Predictably, a year later, I am actually learning that lesson for myself. A few times in the last few months, I have tasted something and “Oh!” to myself. All simple things, sometimes absurdly simple: raw garlic, plain olive oil, okra fried in cornmeal. All tastes of my childhood, of a hot kitchen with shiny pitted floorboards, of something sizzling and something boiling and then my mother’s cold, laughing hands on the back of my neck just to make me jump. These things are particular to my sensibilities and my past, of course, but though yours may be different, we all have them. These are the tastes of love, and not just its outer rim either. These savory-sweet, dizzying flashes are from the inner core of love, the part we are rarely ever brave enough to acknowledge, the heavy part, the honeyed part, the realm of holy delight.

And though I so often forget, I’m certain: this place we are shy of talking or even thinking about, this buoyant golden heart of God’s love, is where we came from in the first place, our actual homeland, the place we belong even now. Funny thing, but so it is.

Classes start in a couple weeks, so things will fall into place soon enough. The car key will turn up. The sun is out and the sun makes things grow.