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.

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

Selfish Art

I’ve just got back from a walk in the rain—real rain, not Vancouver’s usual lazy drizzling nonsense. I am damp and happy. I am happy about the wet rivulets which poured off of my umbrella, and I am happy about the squishing sound my boots made in the grassy mud as I crossed the school field. 

I am also two-thirds of the way through a first novel draft. It’s been a push. It feels like work, because it is work. And yet. I’ve been reminded lately that it’s going to be worth it. It’s going to be worth it because when I’m finished, I get to read it. I can talk all day long about writing as communication to others, as taking the pictures and ideas and worlds inside my head and putting them in someone else’s using only the magic of words on a page, and I believe in all that, I do. But ultimately, in the moment, in the midst of the act of creation, I am nearly always writing for myself.

I create to respond to the truth and beauty I see, to call to it across the void, to expand upon it with words, not primarily so that others can understand it, but so that I can. I’ve written here before about how when I reread my own work, I often find that I’m preaching to myself, particularly if I’m coming back to it after some time. I only really know my own process, of course, but  if I had to guess, I’d say most art that is actually worthwhile is made with this self-guided focus, because such singularity of purpose is able to fully serve the art itself, and treat the outside audience as a peripheral, secondary concern. When you are in the midst of making, the fact that others may get to enjoy what you’ve made is just a happy byproduct. In that instant, you need no audience but yourself.

To consult your own instincts and pleasure so centrally as you create seems like a foolishly selfish approach, and I would be tempted to dismiss it as that, except that this is exactly how God created. He made a world and a people diverse, interesting, strange, and beautiful not because this was correct or necessary but because he knew that to do so was good. Really, I suspect he made his creation good partially just so that he could have the joyful experience of calling it so, over and over. In Orthodoxy, Chesterton imagines that every day when the sun rises, God claps his hands and cries, “Do it again! Do it again!” No one takes more delight in his own art than God.

So I will allow myself to be happy about my own words on a page in the same way I am happy about a long-awaited sloppy rain, because I can receive them and because they are good. A couple months after moving to Vancouver I wrote a little note for myself and put it on my wall. I no longer have any idea what it was originally in response to, and I sometimes forget about it for weeks at a time, but every time I do reread it, it feels more necessarily true than the time before. 

It says, You no longer need to be your own maker and taskmaster. Jesus has stepped in. You are free of the tyranny of self. The Lord has an infinitely better plan, and, moreover, he is gracious. Your only call is to wrap his gifts in rejoicing and offer them back.

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.

Grieving Normalcy

For the last week, ever since classes were moved online and the ground caved in beneath us, I’ve been making notes for a blog entry. It was supposed to be about how to retain normalcy in strange times, something I’ve been fighting for in many sectors of my life. In fact, fight for normalcy is pretty much all I’ve done in the past several days. I’ve worked to follow guidelines, but beyond that, I’ve tried to be creative within them, maintain an abundant life for myself and those around me that bears some semblance to the life we used to live just days ago.

But today, because of a variety of external and internal factors, I have come to the edge of my can-do, make-it-work attitude. That sort of entry just won’t do at the moment. There will be time later to talk about wearing lovely clothes even though no one can see and–to wildly misquote T.S. Eliot–to talk about the taking of toast and tea. There will be time later for a discussion of the new normal.

Tonight, here, I am grieving.

A friend dropped a couple things off to me this afternoon. I came out and stood barefoot in the idyllic spring sunshine on the patio and leaned against the wall. Several feet away, she leaned against her car in the driveway. I said that I was sad about everything and she said that she was angry about everything, and we wept beneath blue sky and budding trees. We were crying for everything we had tried to hold onto in the last few weeks, everything which had slipped through our fingers with terrifying alacrity as if we’d never really had control of it in the first place. We were crying because we had been given love, but seemed to no longer have agency to express it in any meaningful way. We were crying for our fear and our smallness. 

This past Monday was the last day I went into Regent. I worked a strange, ghostly library shift and about ten minutes before it ended an older woman came in with her husband and told me that she had just had cataract surgery and wasn’t able to read her list and could I please help her find the books on it? I have never in my life been more happy to help. I took her list and bustled around, pulling book after book on the Psalms and the life of David plus a couple recorded lectures besides. I piled my findings on the counter in front of them with pride. And that evening, a friend asked me in and made me tea and we sat on his couch and talked about coffee table books for half an hour. Coffee table books.

I am grateful that in both of these moments I had my wits about me enough to see their brightness. There are and will increasingly be many things to mourn. You may have your own list pattering in your head already. But for now I am grieving the glorious mundanity of the gift of human interaction. I am mourning the normalcy we have lost, the good structures which we thought held us up, made us whole.

We’ll grieve these things together, friends. We’ll grieve together, helpless, at the feet of the great Helper, Healer, Maker and Lover of our fragile souls and selves.

A Spring Story

Spring is here with warmth and bright greens and blues.

And this weekend I wrote a paper on Christina Rossetti. That’s pretty much all I did. I’d already spent much of my week immersed in reading and outlining, and late Friday night I sat on my bed and cried because Christina existed and I exist and in one of her favorite of her own poems Jesus says, “Come and see.” Then I told myself it was probably time for bed, but instead kept writing and messing and poking at research for another two hours. I worked and worked through Saturday and much of Sunday as the sun appeared and came rushing through my window. This morning I woke up and finished the last couple pages. I went to start my laundry then rushed back to read it over again and again and twice more, prodding at sentences as I went. And, though I could have read it five more times, I stopped myself and turned it in. And took a walk to London Drugs.

There has never been such a walk to London Drugs. There were tiny blossoms coming out on the trees which had already begun to float to the ground. I smiled at unsuspecting passers by, a few of whom were even emboldened by the sunshine to smile back. I saw children with muddy bare feet and old people basking in sunbeams on benches like cats. The smell of fresh manure—like spring in Pennsylvania—became the smell of flowers by the time I got to 12th.

A couple hours ago I took the compost out with my own feet bare on the warm ground. So that’s how things are here today.

The Cruelest, Greenest Month

Ever since I was a little girl I’ve had a little bet on within myself. Every year April comes, and Easter, and the trees are still grey and bare, but I say to myself, just wait, just wait, by your birthday, just wait. Eventually everything will start to bud, but the days will be coming on faster and faster, speeding up as they go, and I start holding my breath to see if spring will make it in time for my day.

But it does. It always does. I turn twenty-six on Tuesday and outside are bright, thin leaves, bold against the blue sky. Every time I look up, I feel a knot in my stomach.

This morning I went to my Aldi for the first time since its recent remodel. I’ve loved Aldi since college: it’s cheap and predictable. There’s one path you follow through the aisles, and I learned to make my shopping list in the correct order, so no grumpy older person would scowl at me if I had to turn against the flow of traffic to go back for something I’d missed. I liked that the first aisle was the snack food and wine, so the inevitable temptations could be dealt with early on. I liked the loud yellow price signs above products stacked haphazardly on pallets. I think I even liked that the aisles were barely wide enough for two carts, so that it was necessary to make friendly eye contact as you maneuvered past each other.

But now it is bigger. And they have more items stocked than ever. And the first thing you walk into is the produce. And they have labels up which say things like “Cereal” and “Personal Care” and “Cheese.” And the wine is in the last aisle, on sliding racks with mood lighting situated around it. The aisles are so wide now that I think the only person I made eye contact with was the cashier.

If you like nice, easy-to-navigate grocery stores with low prices, you should go to the Aldi on New Garden. But if you’re deeply change-averse like I apparently am right now, you should stay home, because you will hate it. Instead, take baby steps. Open a window and look at the green leaves and pink and white blossoms against the blue sky. Sit quiet and ask for the thing you have been steadfastly resisting: for the God who breathed this life to remake your heart in the same way he remakes spring every year, an act no less wonderful for having been promised.