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.

Summer Update

This is going to be a little more of a vintage-Alice-blog-entry: more rambling and personal, probably not very philosophical. I guess summer brings out the nineteen-year-old in me.

I’ve been done with work for two weeks now. I’ve reorganized my bedroom, gotten a massage, accidentally made an obscene amount of corn pudding, had my oil changed, gone to a wedding, applied for a credit card, donated four bags of clothes to Goodwill, finished reading eight books (three of which I began at least a year ago, two of which were re-reads), and finished writing one (short) short story. Hello, June.

Other highlights so far have included more in-depth planning for trips to London this summer and next, getting to sit down and talk with various wonderful friends whom I almost never get to see, ordering stuff off Amazon Prime nearly every other day, and listening to heavy summer rains wash down my windows in fresh torrents.

Also, Karen moved out on Saturday. I will miss living with her and her habit of walking to my room and beginning enormous theological and cultural conversations with no preface whatsoever. Even though I have a lot more stuff than she did, it echoes here now.

The last summer I spent at my grandparents’ in Missouri was in 2014. They were not really doing very well at that point and shouldn’t have been left alone for long, but sometimes I got restless. Some nights, despite all the books I had to read and the movies I routinely rented from the Redbox at Walmart, I felt like bursting out of my skin. Everything around me seemed to be either stagnant or in decay, so I would take my grandpa’s pick-up to the Sonic in town, where I would buy a large cherry limeade. Then I would drive out into the countryside for an hour or two, down all the little highways with letters for names, and I would try to get lost out there, in the silence of the thick summer. I was never able to do it, though. No matter how far I rolled down the windows, and how the wind rushed through my hair, all my responsibilities and cares stayed in their neat little pile on my lap. I never managed not to know who and where and why I was.

Over time though, I find I mind that less. Responsibilities and cares tie me to people and purpose and community. You don’t always need to be lost to be found.

So, like I said, hello. I’m here and I’m grateful.

 

Blessed Are the Februarys

I feel as if every year in February I write a blog entry about how little I like February.

This is because February is grey. It has a sandy feel that goes down your throat and into your stomach, and everyone seems tired and cynical and little bit empty in the eyes. I usually feel used up and far-from-home.

So since this February has arrived in all its disheartening splendor, I have been feeling small and small and smaller lately, and then this past weekend I read The Great Divorce. And I read where the Spirit tells the man with the lizard on his shoulder that “the gradual process is of no use at all.”  I stopped and I sat very still. This is at least the fourth time I’ve read the book, this scene has always been my favorite, and I think I may even have already underlined those words before. But I guess I haven’t actually been paying attention.

For a very long time, I’ve fed myself the narrative that since life is long and winding, and we change so slow, it’s okay to come to Jesus the long way. It’s okay if I don’t do the best thing, the right thing, today, or if I only do it halfway. I’ll begin being faithful eventually, when I’m older and better, when I’m tough and mature enough to handle it. I’ll join the ranks of the saints once I’m fit for sainthood.

But He must have all of me now no matter how flimsy and sullen that “all of me” is. The plan is not for me to inch towards Him as I have the strength and inclination. I’ve got to throw myself onto the pyre to be made new. And beyond that blaze lie the unknown regions of sheer grace.

Blessed are the poor in spirit,

Blessed are the ones who sing off-key,

Blessed are the ones who’ve lost their appetites,

Blessed are the ones who forget their turn signal,

Blessed are the ones with illegible handwriting,

Blessed are the uncomfortable, the fragile, the speechless, the lowly,

Blessed are the ones who are often flat-out wrong,

For theirs is the kingdom of heaven, and the “Bleeding Charity” that flows at its heart is theirs for the taking.

Pockets in the Between

One of the things I have been doing this time of year is making my students write thank you notes. I tell them that it’s good for us to make ourselves be thankful and to express appreciation to those who don’t hear it from us much. And I tell them that I do this because one day during March of my first year of teaching, when I went to check my box at work, I found a letter inside from my college friend Kate. It was a gem of a letter: warm and kind and deeply thoughtful and valuable. I remember that I kept smiling all day because of it.

I dug it out just now and reread it. She wrote that she had been thinking of me recently because this was a between season in her life and to her I had always seemed to be good at the between. This was generally true of me in college, I suppose, but I think it’s easier in college. High school is over, full adulthood has not yet arrived, and you’re in a strange, happy, stressful bubble where you only hang out with people your own age and talk about the things you love all day long.

But now is different. Now is hard because it feels like it shouldn’t be a between anymore, like I should have moved past the transition stage. There is a voice in my head, coming from God-knows-where, which says to me, “Oh, but you should have arrived.” And it’s true. I have many of the things I’ve always wanted, not the least of which is my job.

Except that the person living this life is not the shiny new Alice I always hoped I would turn into at the stroke of midnight some night, but instead, the person living it is me. I am still stuck with myself–the one riddled with weakness, who tires out and turns inward, who dreams big and lives small.

I’ve been understanding this acutely lately, and I get stuck in it, I get stuck in the dissatisfaction like mud. So this is me backing up, pulling my sinking ankles out of the mire, and climbing onto solid ground. Yesterday I read a passage from Lewis’ Weight of Glory with my juniors, and I told them that our inherent value is not in what we do or what we say, but in our status as image bearers and in the blood of Christ. Everything else is “nothing but filthy rags.”

I should listen to myself more, you guys. I’ve been taught some pretty good wisdom. My kindness, my smartness, my care with my words, my worry over my students, the red ink in my grading pen, the clothes I wear, even the thank you notes I write, are nothing at all when compared with the grace of Golgotha. We can, and should, be grateful, but our goodness–whether we have it or merely wish to have it–is not our own.

I am best reminded of this, I think, by the strange moments when I have stumbled on some surprising pocket of joy which could only have been placed there by One who loves me. We cannot really go searching for little eternities like that–instead they overtake us and, for a second at least, lift the veil.

One night January of my junior year of college, I left a game night at the Edwards’ early so I could go out for a friend’s birthday. It was late, after eleven, and I remember that there was some talk of sending someone to walk me back to campus, but I wanted to go alone. It was very cold that winter–we sometimes woke up with ice coating the inside of our windows–and the powdery snow was falling with a silence that demanded I listen. The road was completely still. My friends were supposed to be picking me up on their way, but they weren’t there yet and I walked up the hill to campus through the streetlights by myself. As I reached the entrance by the baseball fields, my roommate’s car pulled out and past me and I ran out into the street behind them and waved. A couple hundred feet down the car stopped and waited. I could see more than one pair of gloved hands waving at me through the foggy back windshield. I began to run down the middle of the road, through the snow, soft beneath my heavy boots, and through the silent golden streetlights filled with ten thousand quiet snowflakes. The sky was black and starry, and I wanted that moment to go on and on and on.

I cannot figure out what allure it had, except for beauty: as if the wall between myself and glory were sheer, as if Jesus loves even me.