The Lines Love Comes By

A couple weeks ago I had a training course via zoom for teaching AP Lit. After it was over, I went out to my car barefoot with just my license and my keys and drove to my parents’ where I retrieved sandpaper, a stud-finder, and two containers of my mom’s gumbo. It was a warm, thick Carolina night, just the kind I’d missed deep in my bones for the last four years, and when I got home and climbed out of my car I could hear the rhythms of a drumset echoing through the trees. The sound came from a house I could not see, hands I did not know holding the sticks. I stood there for a few beats, listening, grasping the moment against my chest—as you do—my hands full of odds and ends and the gravel of the back drive biting into my soles. Then I went inside.

I’m happier to be back teaching than I knew I would be. I’m happy to have kids back in my classroom, I’m happy to be talking about books I love all day long, and to be doing it in a place which, despite the ebb and flow of time, is still very much home. Yet I can feel myself already sinking into the mire I often felt stuck in four years ago—the mire where my job is my whole existence. To have only my job as an outlet, even for just a month, feels as if I’m funneling my entire self through a few very small holes. I’m antsy. I need a place in my life where I can bust through a dam. 

Maybe I can blame it on that moment when I heard those drum beats coming through the woods. Maybe it was putting up a gallery wall in my hallway yesterday with all the pictures of my child self wrapping her arms around people I love. Maybe it was the sound of the kids next door screaming and laughing and the smell of woodsmoke as their parents burnt scraps from their deck remodel. Maybe it’s been a million different things at once.

In fact, I think a part of the reason I feel the need for a channel beyond teaching is because of the bounty of teaching itself. When students come into my classroom they bring a messy stew of energy with them—happy energy, angry energy, anxious energy, hopeful energy. And then I get up and I try to explain to them why Anglo-Saxon poetry runs soul deep or how the source of Jane Eyre’s self-worth is the gospel and that this is why she has the capacity to forgive the way she does, and I watch bewilderment and understanding flicker intermittently through their eyes. I’m consistently amazed at how close observation, when I am willing to make it habitual, generates deep, rooted love. I come home nearly every day all full up not only of my own feeling, but also theirs. 

So I am brimful and I need another place to toss my words out like lines. There is so much to say, and, unsurprisingly, writing is my first port of call.

But recently with writing, I haven’t been sure where to begin. In fact, about a week ago, I made a list of writing projects I could be working on and there were about eight of them, none standing out to me any more than the others. So I put aside the list with vague despair. And then as I was cleaning up my living room one night before a friend came over, I remembered what pulled me into my last novel not only at the beginning, but what kept tugging and tugging and led me all the way through to the end. I was writing to the point where Jesus showed up. The beginning of the story was a promise and I was writing my way toward the fulfillment. His love pulled me on and on.

This is what all those moments I’ve been momentarily clutching to my chest have in common. Those pictures on my wall are a promise, the heady scent of wood smoke is a promise, the storms and sparks in my students’ eyes are a promise, and so, too, is that cadence of drums in the night air. They are all signs of goodness, declarations of God’s intention to fulfill what he has pronounced.

So as I stood there on the braided rug of my living room, three books tucked under my arm to shelve and a glass to put in the sink, I knew. I knew at once that I need to pick the project with that promise at its heart. I need to pick the thing that will have me write my way along some winding path to incarnate hope. I need to toss my line out in the direction of Christ, over and over, so that he may grasp it, and draw me closer in.

So, without even looking back at my list, I know which line I’m tossing. And I’m very excited.

Good Yeast of Spirit

I’m finishing up a week at a writers’ retreat in a little town in Kentucky. There’s been a lot of bourbon and wine and a lot of lean-in-on-the-arm-of-your-chair-laughing conversations, a lot of tears and a lot of blue sky.

Yesterday we toured a distillery and one of the first places they took us was a room lined with vats each as big as my kitchen, all full of caramelly brown yeast eating away at the sugars in corn—bubbling, swirling froth. The tour guide invited us to reach down into one of them. The air above was warm with steam, but the liquid I brought to my mouth on my finger was cool and soft and sweet.  Some exchange of life was happening between the air and the liquor and I couldn’t understand it.

This evening I fly back to Greensboro and then on Wednesday I’ll be teaching again for the first time in four years. In four days there’ll be kids in my classroom and I’ll be back up front doing that writing-in-real-time thing of communicating to a live, volatile audience. It seems surreal.

Then I’ll come home at the end of each day to my new place that’s all my own, my place that has a sunny upstairs second bedroom. Soon I’ll get a bed for it and then I’ll be holding a place for others, a place with a chair and bed and two windows and boxes of books that have yet to be unpacked. All on a quiet street under the trees.

And a couple evenings a week when I come home—I’m saying this now so that somebody hears me—I will write, curled up in an alcove with a window. I may come back to more revisions on this novel, I may write some poetry, and I may take a stab at long-form creative non-fiction. In fact, I may try them all at once, switching from one to the next to the next because variety is good for the soul. It wakes you up.

The point is this. I’ve felt just about every way I possibly can about my writing in the past week, but the ultimate truth that has sifted down into my gut through all my tumult is that I must keep at it, even if I’m “planting the crop I will not live to harvest,” a crop stored in barrels for years to come. So I’ll gladly pay teaching the mental, emotional tax it demands, but I’ll also guard that home writing alcove ferociously. I’ll continue to sit down with a blank page and reach out a hand through the mist of words to the meaning. I won’t understand it, but some exchange of life will be happening.

Wayfaring in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

I have a lot to say.

I had my last day of work on a Tuesday and by Thursday I was on a plane heading across an ocean for the first time in years. The man in my row didn’t have much English, but smilingly offered me biscuits over and over throughout the flight, and solicitously slipped an extra pillow under my knees when I curled them up onto the empty seat between us. When my client Bonnie had said goodbye, she worried aloud that no one was looking out for me. I thought of this, tucked up in that tight plane seat, and smiled.

My sister picked me up at London Heathrow on Friday morning, and, driving with aggressive delight in her little Honda Jazz, brought me back to her place for a shower. Then, within an hour I was with her and friends in the park in Southall doing book table, and a few hours later at youth club: eating pizza in a church basement, then sitting under a tree by a water cooler dreamily watching teenagers play a frisbee game that was slowly devolving, and thinking that these kids were so nice and funny and going back into teaching sounded not so bad after all. I slept very well that night, suddenly in a different place.

Mary took me out into the countryside the next day, to the Royal Standard, supposedly the oldest pub in Britain. I had pickled kidneys for lunch, and then we went on an idyllic walk over rolling hills while I chattered on to her about my uncertain plans for the future. That evening back in Southall her friend made us biryani. I realized that it had been a long time since I had seen Mary in her place—this bright, noisy, curry-scented corner of England—and it had sunk its roots deep into her. In response, she stepped into every room she entered with loud, dependable confidence.

By Sunday evening, my family had all arrived and we went to my sister’s church, Masih Ghar, and then to the back garden at the local pub to celebrate Father’s Day. It was one of only two dinners the five of us had together over the course of the week. It was good and easy and certain. 

Over the next few days I climbed St. Paul’s with George (where I found out that my brother—who for decades has given the impression that he can leap tall mountains in a single bound—does not much like heights) and went to a traveling circus with my family (where we clapped and laughed and gasped while women hung by their hair, and men hung by their chins, and a human pyramid of acrobats jumped rope together). I found myself at the kids club and the parent-toddler group my sister runs and having huge dosas for lunch, sitting in red booths. I’ve spent the last year or two pulling the shutters of myself closed—metaphorically, physically, even metaphysically—but nothing here would let me do that. Something was always in the way. The latch was broken.

*

By Wednesday afternoon, I was walking along the river in Cambridge with my brother and mom, brightly painted canal boats on our left and a park full of lolling students on our right. I wore a long skirt and sandals, like summer. The conference on George Herbert that my dad had planned began the next morning and I gave my paper very first, on a panel which included one of my professors from undergrad as well as a nice man who remembered me from a conference ten years previous. But the whole weekend was full of odd-but-good connections like that: ties to Vancouver and Pennsylvania and Madison and home. Herbert people, like Herbert himself, are gentle and warm and humble, and I liked talking to them, appreciated that they were always eager to remember my name, though when they realized my family connections, they would say, “So your whole family’s at this conference? I’ve never seen that before…” And I’d laugh and say, “I know. Neither have I. Don’t worry about it.”

Throughout the week, anxiety was sometimes still gnawing at my belly, but slowly, cracks began to form, letting the light in. The first night we sat in Little Saint Mary’s for a poetry reading. I had been, more than I think I understood, wrestling with the place of writing in my life—with what seat to give it at the table, with how to keep it from becoming a bugbear—and my heart slowed its irregularities, felt healthy and hungry again, as I listened to people faithfully present the words they had strung together. One poem was called “Reading the Desert Fathers While Eating a Donut.” The audience knew what she meant.

Then there was the banquet in the great hall at Trinity College—ornate wood paneling reached all around us and hands reached over our shoulders to refill wine glasses again and again, and I think I might have had duck five different ways. Afterwards we sat in Trinity Chapel while a vocal ensemble sang baroque arrangements of Herbert’s poems, harmonies rising over us into high stone space like a woven canopy. They were accompanied by a lute player who just looked like a lute player. I could’ve picked her out if I saw her on the street in Kansas.

And on Sunday, Malcolm Guite led us in a Eucharist service at Clare College Chapel, and the words of the Anglican liturgy tumbled around in my head, where they’ve been nesting for more than a decade now—Ye that intend to lead a new life, they say. There was one more keynote talk that afternoon at a church in the countryside where we were greeted with change-ringing from the bell-tower. As I sat on a centuries-old wooden pew, I watched the leaves behind the leaded glass at the far end of the chancel bobbing their heads in the breeze. Yes, they said, new life, yes, yes.

After that we went to Little Gidding where we were served cake and tea in the garden and one of the poets who is also a latinist read T.S. Eliot’s poem in the place of its birth—because what else could we do? “We shall not cease from exploration,” he read, projecting over the windy blusters which shook the tent and made the tent poles creak. That evening a friend I hadn’t seen since 2020 picked me up in Cambridge and we drove through the night up to Edinburgh. I sometimes slept and sometimes talked and was content without pretense.

*

After a negligible amount of sleep in Edinburgh, Tze and I were on the road again by midday, this time in a 20-year-old Land Rover Defender with another artist in tow. I listened to the tick of the windshield wipers and looked out the window. I realized that over the last couple years as I’ve been busy latching the shutter of myself—I know I have—I may have been missing some things. It was as if there had been a rush of water—a rush of newness—over old glass, and now it was time to look out again and see how the views had shifted. So as we traveled north and north, I paid attention.

There are so many blues and greens and browns and greys and purples in the world—more than I ever knew. Gorse and heather grew up over the country, which was sparsely populated by sturdy buildings with little rows of chimney pots. For the last hour of the drive there were constant vistas to our right hand side: wide, slow hills crested by winding stone walls that did not seem to know they weren’t there to crown a king. Beyond that lay the blanket of the sea, striped with sand, and above that the clouds, a landscape unto themselves. 

We talked most of the time, too. I pulled out my clothing interview questions from my project last spring and we all three went through them as we sped past legions of sheep and cows who were living in glory and didn’t even know it. 

We arrived at Freswick Castle, up north of Wick, in time for dinner, a place where they take in artists and strays and seem determined to leave the latchstring out. So I spent the next few days with warm people, people who tell you encouragingly that you seem so comfortable and confident without realizing this is due to their kindlinesses. Our wine glasses were refilled constantly at dinner. I felt more “looked out for” than Bonnie sitting worrying in her chair back in Madison could have imagined, and was often on the verge of tears. It was a combined sense, I think, of inadequacy and gratefulness. It didn’t get all the way dark there, even at midnight. On clear nights in midsummer, the sky just gets drowsy blue-gold-pink and hangs like that for a few hours before the sun comes up again. Murray, who owns the place, gave us a tour and spoke confidently about where the theater and the film studio and the pool would go. In the midst of all that cloudy diffusion of light, it was hard not to believe him.

In the mornings, I sat in the window in my room and attempted writing exercises and struggled over the skeletons of poems—unsure where to direct all my words and thoughts. And one day, using spotty wifi, I managed to obtain an apartment back in Greensboro (a place all my own) and a job (teaching literature back at Caldwell—And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we first started…) The castle is large, but also small, and everyone there had a front-row seat to the tumult of my transition. My friend was filming a video for Wayfarer Trust, which operates out of the castle, and I shot some moody b-roll and a less moody interview with him and continued to wonder where writing would fit for me now. I watched candles reflected in the mirror each night while we drank whiskey by the fire, noticed how the old hearthstones lay flush with restored floors, and took deep breaths.

I took walks, of course—with others at Duncansby Head, where we saw a puffin, and along the cliffs on my own, clammy with clear sweat. In that part of the world, the wind was such an active participant that it was visible in all things, like the Spirit. The grasses bow to it, the water ruffles under its touch, and the birds—hundreds of them—coast trustingly on its back.

*

I was tired by Friday, when I left Freswick. But it was the tiredness of progress. The pages of my journal were beginning to feel safe again, not like a wilderness. Tze and I dropped off one friend in Inverness and immediately picked up three more and headed west to the Isle of Skye.

While we drove and chatted I watched the highlands outside becoming more and more themselves, and thought of too many ways to describe the hills: the lines of the slopes rise like Icarus climbing into the late-day sun…wrinkled knees under sheets in the lamp light…mountain peaks are arms reaching up side by side like Moses at the battle against the Amalekites. 

We did a far-too-large grocery shop before crossing onto Skye, and then the back of the Defender was so crowded that I spent the last hour with a lap full of raw poultry and a bottle of wine in my skirt. Even so, when we got to the cottage we realized we’d forgotten butter, so half-hysterical, and with varying amounts of encouragement from friends, I beat heavy cream till we had enough for the next morning’s toast.

We spent the next couple days scrambling around the island. I liked seeing friends dotted into the muddy creases of a steep green hillside as we climbed, and I didn’t mind it when I stepped in a bog, went in up to my calf, and almost lost a shoe. The sludge that was left on my leg was green at its top edge, like the earth itself. Hiking there was much more about making your own way than following a path, and as we traced along the side of the mountain at Quiraing I always found my feet drifting up and up, unconsciously choosing the high road. At Fairy Glens there were loud American voices that made me smile. “You’re makin’ me nervous and I don’t even know you!” one woman shouted to a Scot high on the rocks, who immediately shot her a look of disdain. Another repeated over and over and over to Lord-only-knows-who, “Lookit the dog working the sheep across the valley!” 

I carried my journal with me everywhere and squinted as the sun reflected off its pages, managing to scribble anyway about the benches cleft of mud and grass, the plush black moss at the tops of things and the ankle-deep mounds of springy orange growth on the descent. My hair whipped all the time into my peripheral vision, so I could only see what was just below my feet. 

At the Old Man of Storr, it was gusty and threatening and while the rest hiked I stayed tucked in my seat in the back of the car and re-read my journal. I found I’d used the word “visceral,” over and over to describe the trip, as if it were a brand new discovery each time—that goodness could be real, that I could taste it. I heard a passerby say loudly to her boyfriend, “You think she looks sad back there?” But all I was thinking was, What a funny place for flowers to grow—in wind and rain and chill.

The last day we left Skye slowly—on the way I bought a very nice felt hat and a sheepskin hot water bottle cover. We stopped at a distillery where they made storm-matured whiskey, a phrase I loved. We stopped for photos by a bridge and by a castle and by a valley and by a beach, and got caught in the rain again and again. Back on the mainland I made them listen to me read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever aloud, even though it was July. We drove along Loch Lomond, which is very long, and listened to sad Scottish songs, and then eventually to James Taylor as well as Peter, Paul and Mary, because it was, after all, American Independence Day.

*

I slept extra the next morning, back at Tze’s house. Then he showed me bits of Edinburgh—from low tide and from a high hill—and we bought pasties at the train station and he saw me off.

I was sad on the train back to London. So I listened to a Kate Atkinson novel and then saw a pure white horse in the middle of a sheep field, which made me feel hopeful I was T.S. Eliot, on the verge of something great and somber. “Costing not less than everything,” I thought (lines from “Little Gidding” kept coming back to me with dramatic import.)

Then the last day I put on a crop-top, a white linen skirt, and the new hat itself, and went into central London alone. I wandered around the V&A, going up stairs and more stairs till I’d climbed out of the way of most of the other people. I looked at tiles and stained glass and golden miniatures and modern furniture design till I was all full up and warm. I got lunch in Hyde Park, and took the tube to Hampstead Heath where I meandered around for a while, ineffectually but peaceably. Then I came back and had dinner in Southall with Mary and some of the short term teams there for the week, scooping up butter chicken and paneer and dal with pieces of naan till I was satisfied, my fingers oily, but clean.

On my travels home, I made friends—on the plane, in the customs line, on the bus—or rather they made me, drawn by my cool new hat or maybe just their own anxieties. And I thought a lot about the Luci Shaw poem “The chair without distinction,” about just sitting on the edge of things, windows and doors wide open, available to be walked into, to be leaned on for a moment. I had walked into the kind doors of so many other people in the past few weeks, more than I could count.

The point is, this trip gave me much. That’s what I’m trying to say with all these too many words. But the thing it did most is it busted me open, cracked through dry skin, and began what may be a long process of cleaning me out. It told me that I must and can write and that I must and can love. I’m already doing them both anyway and I was made for them. So best not hold them in. Christ walks on the water, the wind, the seemingly impossible, and he’s calling me to meet him there, holding out open hands, always open.

As it says over the door of the Royal Standard when you cross the threshold, “Go gently, pilgrim” (but, by all means, go.)

January

This is my day off and the main thing I want to do today is write this. Write this and take a walk.

I spent almost two weeks at home in Greensboro over Christmas and New Year’s. There’s no real replacement for going right back to a place you’ve once lived, because only in person can you remember the little pieces of yourself that you’ve left embedded in its cracks. 

One night I was up late in the dark after finishing reading a novel and I sat on the top step of the stairs and looked out the window. I remembered how when I was a girl, in the winter, I used to wake out of a dead sleep, come blearily to this window, and squint out hopefully. Outside the yard and the cars and the trees and the pavement and the shed roof would all glint softly monochrome under the streetlights of the condo parking lot next door, and joy would wash over me. Snow. I’d go back to bed dreaming of school cancellations. Then my mom would wake me at 6:30 and I’d say, “No, but Mom, it snowed!” And she’d say, “No, it didn’t,” so I’d go to the window of the night before and find that everything was dull and damp and dark grey, with no hint of the magic I’d seen only hours earlier. 

I think a few of those mornings I went to school still fervently believing that it had snowed in the middle of the night after all, but it had melted so fast, and no one but me, alone at my window at the top of the stairs, had seen it. But as I sat on that step a couple weeks ago, I had to admit to myself fully—perhaps for the first time—that there’d never been glistening snow that had come and gone in the quiet hours with only a nine-year-old girl as witness, that what my sleepy eyes had seen was a trick of the light.

Because even twenty years later the way that streetlight sits on the yard and the cars and the trees and the pavements and the shed roof is something uncanny. It’s glittering gold that hangs in heavy wet air. When you look out that window at that time, the world is monochrome, but it’s not white like snow—it’s all other-worldly amber, born out of thoroughly unmystical street lamps crisscrossed with power lines. So perhaps it’s not so much a trick of the light as it is a gift of it.

Anyway.

I’m back in Madison now, going to work most days where I cook bacon and eggs and give nebulizer treatments and read novels in snippets and take out the trash and have the headlines of the Monday paper read aloud to me and sit listening to the puff of an oxygen machine while looking up at a framed pen drawing of a man sitting on a bench by a window, a man who is clearly waiting for something.

There is snow on the ground here—real snow, that shows up at all times of day. It brings with it a bright, dull hush—turning the sound of the world down and the light of the world up. So when I am not at work I look out the window at its whiteness and think through my novel, which is in its final stretch before I begin sending it to agents. I need to fiddle with the pacing a bit in most chapters, and write a convincing query letter and then, well, I try. I start clicking ‘Send.’

I’m hopeful about it at the moment. I’m hopeful about it the way I used to be when I’d pull myself diligently out of bed and sleep, to pad over creaking floorboards to a still, dark window. I’d rub my eyes and look. There might not be snow as I envisioned it, but there would be something waiting there for me, something worth seeing.

2021 Retrospective

I skimmed over the entries in my day journal to write this. It was a task I was dreading a bit, to tell the truth. But the more I read my little scribbled phrases, the more I found myself moved by the many small oddly-shaped pieces of the year.

The first thing I did this year, according to my journal, was “woke up sad.” And then that evening I watched Henry V with my family, with that impossibly long shot of Kenneth Branaugh carrying Christian Bale through the ruins of the battle. Within a few days, I was back in Canada, quarantining in an AirBnB, talking to friend after friend on the phone, and falling asleep at night to Derry Girls.

So that was the beginning. What followed those weeks of solitude was a sort of triptych year: five old-feeling months in Vancouver, three unrooted months all over the U.S., and four new-feeling months in Madison.

In Vancouver, I took walks and handed out books at curbside pick-up at the library.  We were still pretty tightly locked down most of those months. I missed in-person chapel desperately. But one night in February, despite it all, three friends and I got dressed to the nines, went to a dinner with wine and lamb shank, and pretended like nothing was wrong. Rach and I even shared lipstick. Also that month I did a project where I interviewed thirty people about clothing. Apparently on February 15, I interviewed three people over the phone, took walks with two friends, and watched a lot of Broadchurch. That’s about how things were. I made paper flowers for Easter with my housemates and I waited. Eventually, after much hand-wringing, I presented my final project and had champagne. Then I graduated, read a poem, and had champagne again. As COVID restrictions began to lift, I left.

I drove down to Lake Tahoe all by my lonesome and once there spent most of the two weeks either walking to the grocery store in sandals or curled up on the corner of the couch with a book or the hard copy of my novel draft. But my Granddad also drove us around the lake and the water was blue, blue, blue. Then George came and we drove Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and then home. We took pictures all along and I wrote too much and with the help of a friend put it all together into a laborious photobook as a souvenir of my summer angst. I helped my Dad make a quiz for a 4th of July party, saw old friends who treated me gently, ran into former students all properly grown up, and listened to so many audiobooks. I drove a lot of toll roads.

Then I came to Madison where I got used to baby spit-up on my clothes, read The Mennyms aloud, immediately joined the local library, watched a whole season of Survivor with Abby and Taylor and then introduced them to my favorite shows, and where, in October, my favorite thing of all was driving out to my clients’ house south of the city, through rolling green-black fields and blue skies. At work I started a project recording life stories, yet again interviewing people. I heard more about football than I ever wanted to, drove up and down the beltline so many times, tried to get used to being the help in other people’s homes, and went apple picking.

I lived in wilderness this year, though often not by choice: squinting over fields at sunsets, doing writing coaching while wandering in the woods, walking to the beach when there were beaches to walk to, hiking in Sierra meadows with my grandfather.

Yet somehow the mechanisms of life kept churning: I ate really good ice cream, read the best bits of Wind in the Willows aloud, had family video calls, left voice messages, made a new friend or several, went to the dentist, had two clothing swaps in two different countries, went on a handful of dates (not particularly successfully), ended up on Medicaid which felt jarring but not bad, and ate cheese souffle on my birthday like I did when I was a little girl. I received so much hospitality from so many people.

I was in Karen’s wedding, which was sweet but inevitably reminded me that I’m not much of a bridesmaid. I got several oil changes, and my check engine light now comes brightly on anytime I drive through mountains. I made a lot of s’mores and cooked a lot of eggs. I stayed with several cousins I hadn’t seen in years. I sat at a backyard table in Pennsylvania shelling limas from my mom’s garden, and ate a sub at a steamy, dusty gas station in Utah amidst shedding cottonwoods. And I read more than I have since childhood, discovering Kazuo Ishiguro and rediscovering Kate Atkinson and Anne herself.

Inevitably I did new things. I watched a friend play harpsichord in a garden, rescued a bird on my old college campus, visited the zoo with a toddler, injured my finger in a vacuum cleaner, gave sponge baths, made my first pecan pie, got my first COVID test, and finally posted on instagram.

And of course, I spent most of the year intermittently laboring over a single novel draft. Writing takes a long old time. I sometimes forget that. And most of my writing this year I did as duty, as task. It often seemed curiously devoid of joy.

Only in constructing this entry have I been able to admit something to myself: this year has been a lot. A lot of good, a lot of strange, a lot of difficult, a lot of a lot. And the last two or three weeks have been especially hard, so I’ve gotten uncharacteristically bad at getting back to people. Sorry about that, friends.

But the other day, I picked up the now-finished draft I hadn’t looked at since Thanksgiving. I skimmed and sometimes properly read it. I’ll tell you a secret: to my surprise, it wasn’t half-bad. All those plodding hours crouched in my chair or curled on my bed, balancing my laptop on my knees, had yielded something that was better than it had been before. So perhaps those who sow with tears will reap with shouts of joy, after all. And perhaps even 2021, in all its grainy, changeable, overwhelming detail, has yielded many things—not all things, but more than we know—that are better than they had been before.

Because today is the day the year starts to get lighter. And even now, in the darkness over Bethlehem, a star is rising.

Obvious Things

I’ve been in Madison for going-on-two months and I have yet to go downtown or eat at any restaurant beside Culver’s or explore anywhere at all really and I am so content.

I work three days a week, going to people’s homes and making their meals and sweeping their kitchen floors and sitting on their couches to chat and sometimes bringing them their medication. When I leave I always tell them the next time I’ll see them. On the days I don’t work, I write some, I look out the window, and in the evenings I watch TV and put my clothes on their hangers.

Since I’ve gotten here, I’ve been stepping softly and steadily. I’ve gained weight. Not much, but still—I’m embarrassingly delighted by it. My brown leather pencil skirt fits properly for the first time in years, though I don’t really have anywhere to wear it. And I’ve been reading, reading the books I’ve been dragging round for years without ever touching, reading for the joy of it.

I’ve found that here—and by here I am not sure if I mean this place or this season of life (perhaps both)—here I can accept my own slowness. I can move along at a plodding, dreamlike pace, contentment rising up in me like a tide, paying attention to obvious things, letting life be self-evident.    

And then sometimes when I am driving from one client’s home to another in the middle of the day, I find that I am crying. I have to retrace the path of my thoughts to pinpoint what it is I was thinking about that brought on the tears. It’s usually some hurt or fear from way deep down, sometimes from decades ago, that has decided that waters were safe and still enough to rise to the surface. That’s how it goes, I suppose. So each time I ride the little wave, then dry my eyes, get out of my car, and go into the next house.

Then, on Saturday night, on a sort-of country road outside Madison, three high school seniors were driving to pick up another friend when they were rear-ended. Their car swerved into the cornfield to their right, flipped over and burst into flames. They all died there, about 300 yards from one of their homes.

I drove by this grief four times in the course of a few hours yesterday, as I took a client to run errands. There was a big mound of flowers and gifts and small precious items and the whole area was marked off by huge orange barrels and watched over by a police car. Each time I went past, one or two teenagers would be standing there, just looking down the memorial, hands in pockets, faces strangely impassive and blank, as if feeling hadn’t reached them yet, but looking hard at the spot where it happened might heal the numbness. 

The last time I went by, around five pm, there was a larger group, nine or ten kids, huddled around the side of the road. But I saw out of the corner of my eye two or three of them had gone farther, had walked down into the great obvious gash in the cornfield, stepped deep into the curving wound as if to see death from inside. 

A part of me wanted to pull over and wait till they emerged, not get out of my car, but just sit and bear witness. I was already past by the time I’d thought it, though, onto my five-thirty appointment, carrying the image with me as a handful of aching memory, moving on with soft and steady steps.

The Encouragement of Memory

Since the beginning of June, all through hot, heavy summer and into this warm, welcome fall, I’ve been trying to do two things. I’ve been trying not to think about my life in Vancouver too much, and I’ve been trying to understand where I am now.

I’ve found myself in so many different places recently and with so many different people and doing so many different things. What I’ve written on here has been scattered and confused and so have I. I’m constantly thinking of all the moments and movements I could write about, but there are so very, very many of them, and I need to be able to explain them to myself before explaining them to any reader. 

Yet I cannot seem to find the narrative thread: it’s all fragments. There’s the pink sunset I can see from the back window of my client Bonnie’s house as her oxygen machine puffs rhythmically beside me in the yellow-linoleum kitchen. There’s the little church I’ve been visiting where everyone has been so very, very welcoming but I still feel more shy than is sensible. There’s the room I’ve settled into with all my things and books arranged just so for the first time since I can remember. There’s my housemates’ baby crying in the back bedroom so sturdily that we can hear both her actual voice and the sound of it coming through the monitor, her own wailing echo. There’s the tattered band-aid I regularly change out on my finger from a thrilling “workplace injury” I got a week and half ago and my impatience for it to heal. There’s prayer in the round at two different small groups I’ve visited. There’s the dip and roll of Wisconsin farmland as I drive to a client’s, the green and gold of the ripening soybeans. There is the great white wall of books and TV in the living room upstairs and the floor in front of it, usually covered in toddler and baby and toys. There’s me wading ever so slowly forward on my novel and there’s my quest to find places to wear my cute dresses (or any clothes other than my cobalt blue work polo). And here and there, there is a tree turning orange at its tip in full confidence that the chill of season’s change will indeed come even if, at the moment, it hasn’t.

So here I am in the stolid Midwest, hopelessly trying to decipher it all, and then a couple days ago I was flipping through my day journal and I was reminded of something. I was reminded of sitting on the beach at Spanish Banks two nights before I left Vancouver. A few weeks before someone had given my friend Regula and I a couple of small bottles of real champagne as graduation gifts. We still had one left that we’d been forgetting and forgetting to drink. That night a group of folks were gathering, and since it was our last chance Regula brought the bottle. As the sun settled in to set to the far west of the mountains, the two of us passed it back and forth, swigging it lukewarm straight from the bottle, trying not to let our friend Aubrey see how improperly we were consuming her generosity. We giggled a lot and were very happy and free on bare sand. It was a celebration. I think I’d also brought a slice of chocolate cheesecake for my dinner which I didn’t share with anyone.  

What I felt as I remembered was not a pang of missing my life there like you might think, but more a pang of relief and understanding. The memory had become well-ordered in my mind now, not fragmentary, its rough edges rubbed away and its significance clear. This is what happens to things in the past. We forget just enough of them that what’s left is manageable, comprehensible. For instance, enough months had passed that I’d forgotten that though there was a large group at the beach that evening, I talked to no one but close friends and felt ashamed of my introversion. No, now the memory is nothing but joy—joy I can hold in my hand and sip.

It’s God’s faithfulness that this is so. That things (most things) eventually make sense, recede into their own well-ordered, jewel-like narrative, given time and space and remembering. If that day or week or season eventually came up clean in the wash, we can say to ourselves, then probably this one will too. After all, he’s still the same God he was back then. 

So maybe I’ll stop treating my present moment, my present life (which, incidentally is quite a good one) as if it’s some cipher I must labor over and bash my head against. Instead I’ll encourage myself to let the present be. I’ll keep collecting it as I always have, of course. I’ll fill jars and jars full of observations and moments and colors and thoughts, but then I’ll leave them be on a shelf and walk away. I’ll let time distill them till they make sense to me. And in the meantime, I’ll return to the memories that have aged and wisened, that have things to tell me. I will remember and taste and wonder over their many good gifts.

In Defense of Confidence

Two nights before I left Vancouver I sat on the beach with friends, and one of them posed a question: what did each of us feel absolutely confident in? What ability or sphere did we not worry about, did we firmly believe was a strength? It’s actually a weirdly vulnerable question to answer in front of others (because what if they think your confidence is misplaced?!?) but sitting on the sand, in the cradle of sea and mountain and city, we did it. I, perhaps embarrassingly, knew my answers immediately. I am confident that I can write, and I am confident that I can dress myself well.

Over the last couple of weeks, though, confidence has not been on my mind. I’ve felt bogged down. Since I’ve been at the cabin here at Tahoe I’ve been back at revising the novel, though it feels like more of a chore than it did before. I’ve wondered if shaping my life for the next year or so around the possibility of getting it published is foolish, if people are looking at me and thinking my confidence is misplaced, if there’s any room for me in the already over-saturated literary industry, if what I’m doing is more a game of chance than a game of talent. I’ve had conversations in the last few days with family and friends in which I’ve explained every bit of the issue, willing them to understand the Rubik’s cube of my anxieties, willing them to say the right thing, the magic words that will make me feel better. But no one has, and I’m beginning to think that this fear over the risks I’m taking is simply the Rubicon I have to cross at the moment, and solid ground will appear in the distance again if I’m patient. But still. I must ford it for now, and it’s unpleasant.

And then last night, after a good cleansing cry, the likes of which I hadn’t had in a long, long time, I found myself thinking back to one of my earliest moments of confidence in my writing. I was thirteen years old and after a science test I pulled out a small journal, while others slept or whispered or continued to struggle over multiple choice questions. I found a pencil and began to describe the scene around me and an immense wave of satisfaction washed over me, because the sentences I had written were clever—they were right. I’d done good. I’d want an audience very soon, but in that moment, even with my plain brown eyes and the awkward hands I was embarrassed of, I did not need anyone to tell me that I’d bundled real life into a few biting words on the page. I knew it for myself. No one, I was gloriously certain as I looked down at that yellow and brown notebook, could do what I had just done.

Writing looks much different now. I watch the world around me more humbly than I used to. I wait for revelation, for light. I gather pieces of it like pebbles to see if once I sit down with them, and hold them in my hand, I can scrabble up the words to do justice to their beauty and their oddity. In the past week, I have collected the glitter of sand in the water as it comes up to the lake shore in gentle waves, a young couple with dreads, looking as if they’ve been hitchhiking for days, sitting exhausted against the back of Whole Foods, two stellar’s jays with tall black crests, the evening light on the long row of old wine corks on the kitchen windowsill, and a man at Fallen Leaf Lake today, asleep in his golf cart on his property, feet propped up by the steering wheel.

But none of this would have been possible without that girl in the science classroom and her supreme sense of confidence over a fifty word journal entry scrawled in a pencil that needed sharpening. She was and is the one, more than any outside voice, who reminds me that yes, of course I can do something with all these tiny gifts, of course I can write. Why would I assume for a second that I couldn’t? Writing is joy.

But writing is different from publishing. And there I have no native confidence that an agent scanning with an eye for saleability will immediately see the value of what I am trying to do, no confidence that I can instinctively make the right decisions about where and how to settle for now, about how long to wait for a bite on the manuscript, about what job to take in the meantime, about which creature comforts to sacrifice and which to cling to. The route I’m taking seems ridiculous, untried, and uncertain.

And yet. Last night I guess I thought about my thirteen-year-old self a lot. Because I also for some reason remembered the time I wore denim-on-denim to play practice. After school I’d changed from my uniform with much deliberation into jeans and a pale denim jacket (which I’d always zip to the exact same point to make me look like I had a figure that I definitely didn’t—and still don’t—have). I can still see myself walking down the deck outside the modulars toward the drama room with my heart in my throat. I can’t entirely tell you why I wore it, even today. The outfit was a simultaneously conscious and nerve-wracking choice. Certainly no one else would be wearing anything like it. In fact, I wasn’t entirely sure if I liked something so matchy, if it looked good, and none of my friends were in the play so I’d have no safe camaraderie to run to once I arrived. I’d be on my own, looking unusual. But I knew that if I didn’t try, I’d never know—what if me walking into the room in shoulder-to-toe denim would be the most beautiful thing the world had ever seen? So, without consulting anyone, I chose confidence, because that was the only way further up and further in. Funnily, I don’t remember what happened when I did walk in. It must not have been very important.

So perhaps I learned everything I’ll ever need to know about confidence back in 2005. Even then, I knew that confidence was not so much ego as it was trust. It was utter trust in a gift, trust that it was not some cosmic mistake that something had fallen into my lap, but instead that Someone had placed it there on purpose and I ought to follow the urge in my gut to hold it up to the late afternoon light and laugh over it with words. And strangely enough, even back then I knew confidence had to admit an element of risk, a willingness to fail. I knew that the things which are the most good and the most beautiful and the most true all ultimately happen and become themselves in places where there is no cover from enemy fire—in open meadows and out on the western plains.

America So Far

A week ago I pulled away for the final time from the townhouse in Vancouver that was my home for three years, just a little teary. I turned on the radio to distract myself from what was happening and “Another One Bites the Dust” blared at me out of the speakers. So then I laughed most of the way to Oak Street. Thank God for absurdity.

It was a warm, sunny day and my housemate had sent me on my way with a container of homemade cookies, two of which she’d carefully shaped like hearts. When I came through the U.S. border after a line-up of two cars and one woman on foot, the agent told me “welcome home,” and I felt warm, because there is no better phrase in the English language, but I also felt sad thinking of everything that was now at my back. 

I spent the day driving through cities, and finishing listening to Where the Crawdads Sing, which I started on audiobook ages ago. The Seattle skyline was showing off in the blue and the sunlight, and by the time I got down to Portland it was one hundred degrees. Hallelujah and bring on the heat! Welcome home, indeed. 

I stayed the night in a little AirBnB airstream trailer in Eugene, Oregon, which was very hippy and very relaxed and reminded me just how buttoned up and bougie the West Side of Vancouver really is. I walked to the grocery store a few blocks away and liked seeing weeds growing in the cracks of sidewalks, and barefoot tattooed folks waving to me as they watered their front yards in the evening light. The cashier, who was inexplicably wearing a black wool scarf as a face mask in ninety degree heat, was friendly and chatty and asked what I was up to later. I told him that I’d been driving all day so my plan was to collapse, then realized that he now knew I was travelling and probably had enough context to look down at the three items he’d just bagged for me and know they would comprise tonight’s dinner and tomorrow’s breakfast. This felt strangely vulnerable and I escaped self-consciously back out into the warmth of the evening.

My second day I kept driving south. In retrospect, I could have taken I-5 down to Tahoe that day. It would have taken longer, but I could have done it. However, I took a more direct route, on a patchwork of state highways and byways and roads that were merely roads. Much of it was through National Parks at the beginning, marked by the familiar wooden signs with yellow lettering. I stopped at a little espresso stand in Willamette National Forest for a coffee and the woman there called me sweetheart, which is almost as good as “welcome home.” My check engine light came on right before I crossed into California and I pulled over in what I knew would be one of the last towns for a long while, and a man at the auto shop kindly checked it for free, said I would be fine for now, and sent me on my way. 

From there on out it was vast valleys nestled in rocky ranges, sparse forest, and great shining, still mountain lakes, for hours and hours. My housemates and I had watched Nomadland the night before I left Vancouver and now I thought of it frequently. There was often not a shoulder to the road, rarely another car, and the sun continued hot, making heat waves on the pavement, a shimmering landscape of blue and green and black and grey and dusty orange. I ignored my back that ached from sitting, listened to an audiobook of Anne of Green Gables, stared at the miles of stunning wilderness, and cried harder than seemed reasonable when Matthew Cuthbert died. Signs warning that this was fire country flicked past me, and once I started, thinking there were flames rushing behind me, but it was only the bright yellow line of the road. I was more anxious than I realized. Between Eugene and Reno I went through maybe six towns in the course of about 400 miles. 

By dinner time I had come down the incline into the Lake Tahoe basin, my place of port for a few weeks. I had dinner with my granddad and his wife, then walked the few blocks back to the little family cabin off Ski Run where I’m staying. I took a bath, fell into bed, and wondered what I had done.

I’ll be in Tahoe till late June, then my brother will meet me and we’ll do the cross-country drive at a leisurely pace, staying with family most of the way. I’ll spend July mainly in Greensboro, and then after a friend’s wedding at the beginning of August, I’ll drive north to Madison, Wisconsin, where I’ll move into some friends’ basement, look for work that pays a decent wage so I can work on paying off loans, and settle in to finish revising this novel and looking for an agent in earnest. And that’s it, that’s the whole plan. I’m living very skint and a little rootless for the foreseeable. And I have only the vaguest idea of what comes after.

As I’ve concocted these plans over the last several months, I’ve been excited about them–they felt like freedom, like hope, like adventure. But my isolated drive through the remote, seemingly immeasurable Sierra wilderness had gotten deep under my skin. As I lay in bed I was afraid, very afraid that I was a fool. That the uncertain, blank canvas of the years ahead signaled that I was walking off a cliff. At root I hate not having a plan or being in control. It took me a very long time to fall asleep.

But the next day was better. It’s beautiful here. I step out onto the front porch and the air smells of warm, sunny pine. And South Lake Tahoe’s a resort town, so everyone (but everyone) is on vacation, in shorts and sundresses and crop tops and flip-flops, walking to the grocery store for pasta and cheap wine, wandering to the beach like there’s no timeline because there isn’t. The sand at the shore is coarse gold, not the fine, ethereal grey you find on the beaches of Vancouver. Every day has been sunny and soft.

So the last week has been gently livable. I’ve walked to the grocery store a few times myself, marching out in my sandals through dust and sun and sugar pine needles, and even to the lake once. I’ve jumped into revision plans for the novel, scribbling in all directions on sheets of paper ripped from my New Testament notebook, facing up to the number of characters I need to do justice to. I’ve watched Taskmaster and Grand Designs while eating grilled cheese sandwiches, and read bits of mystery novels as well as Spoon River Anthology.

The anxiety which surfaced on my lonely drive lives on, and so, in a related and equal way does the missing of my life and people in Vancouver. Both have been coming out in emotional bursts, like I have a release valve somewhere which I can turn off and on mainly as I please (anxiety and sadness on tap!) But just because they are voices I can hear does not mean they are the only ones. 

For my birthday, my sister gave me a copy of Adorning the Dark, Andrew Peterson’s book on creative vocation. It felt appropriate to read it now as the point of the next couple years of adventurous living is to lean into the writing, to try to make it actually happen. I’ve read a few chapters, and it’s been full of good reminders. “Follow the stars, not the flotsam,” he says. On Sunday, I went with my grandparents to a concert on the north side of the lake, up in Incline Village. As we drove along the eastern shore for nearly an hour, the wind had picked up, and I could not stop staring at the water. Hundreds of little whitecaps ducked and sped across the blue in the midday sun, so deeply, truly, richly blue, that it made you wonder whoever could have dreamed such a color, and not only dreamed it, but filled a whole lake with it.

So I will follow this for now, these pleasant lines in pleasant places.

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.