If you are a fantasy nerd, you joke with your brother about setting sail for the Undying Lands and leaving the people of Middle Earth to their fate. You say it because there is nothing left to say. But in the absence of an elf-driven ship, you head out on a run. Most of the campaign signs have been removed from people’s lawns, and the ones that remain have begun to tilt sideways in ground softened by these last days of rain. Through windows, you catch glimpses of televisions turned to experts pronouncing prophecies, as only experts can. Even so, November is still your favorite month, every tree decaying in its own special way. No matter how many years you live through the seasons, your eyes never stop hungering for the riot of colors. Leaves clog the streets, and geese call from on high, unperturbed by the clamor of that noisiest of species who thinks we have it all figured out. Down another street, you see the elderly man who once let you take shelter in his garage during a downpour, and ever since, he greets you by name. He’s running his lawnmower over mounds of leaves, three houses away from where he lives. He looks up as you run past and waves, his face wide with a grin. Love your neighbor as yourself, you think. It shouldn’t be so hard. But like everything we ought to have the strength and decency to do, it is one of the hardest things of all. Who is my neighbor? an expert asked Jesus, and He told a scathing story of a man wounded in the road, ignored by the ones who ought to have known better and cared for by a person from the enemy camp. Go and do likewise, Jesus said, always getting to the meaty middle of things. Down another street, you pass a young mother with a stroller. Good morning, you say to her, and she greets you back. Middle-aged men wearing air pods, teenage girls walking dogs, so much of our species out in the road, just trying to take it all in. You smile, say good morning to everyone you pass, pausing as each set of eyes meets your own. All of us are so utterly powerless, you think, and yet, we are powerful enough.
I keep buying houseplants. I have asked myself why. Maybe I’m doing what the pagans did when they brought evergreen branches into their homes during winter: an act of sympathetic magic meant to protect the life force of the trees until spring. But I don’t think it’s that. Maybe it’s the original reason: I need to share the space between these walls with something, anything other than myself that breathes. I still think it’s partially that. But I think now it’s closer to the days I spent sitting by my father’s bedside while he lay in a coma, and a whisper of digitized music, like the sudden opening and closing of a noise-making toy, kept punctuating the air. The first time I heard it, I thought it was one of many alarms erupting from one of the many machines he was hooked up to, but no, the nurse said, “They play that every time a baby is born.” Right, yes, I had forgotten: because good things happen in hospitals, too. A lot of babies were born in those three days, or maybe that’s just how I remember it—the claustrophobic pulse of unknowing interrupted, so often, by some signal from another sphere of existence. But those days, it was death in the room with me, and these days, the death is out there, and I am staying inside, I am told (I’m not sure any longer what I believe), to keep that death from coming to me. Oh, but it will come, has come already, the life we once had leaking out of us all as we wait, wait in the pulse of unknowing. And that is why I keep buying houseplants—some signal from another sphere of existence. Some whisper that reminds me it’s all intertwined: life and death, blood and leaf, and we can watch one part of it crumble, and still, the world goes on, merciless in interrupting our tragedy with beginning, a green still worthy of a song.
Four and a half months into the quarantine, you find yourself rearranging books in the middle of the day, hands clotted with dust and sweat beading on your forehead, the summer sun pouring in through the skylight. This, after spending the last three days trying to determine if it would be viable to keep a frog in your apartment, to keep a chinchilla, to keep anything other than yourself that breathes, before settling on a handful of house plants. Thus, the rearranging of books. You’ve read Ovid, you’ve read Marquez, you’ve read and reread Lewis. You’ve failed at planting seeds and semi-succeeded at planting things Better Homes and Gardens assured you would grow in the shaded, barren plot of dirt beneath your windows. So far, so good, but slugs have been noshing on one of them, despite the coffee grounds you’ve been dutifully sprinkling around its base, which are supposed to deter the slugs but may only be spurring them on. Your only hope is that the plant will grow at a faster rate than the rate at which it’s being consumed. There is, you are certain, some sort of metaphor in this. Oregon is still in Phase 1 of reopening, though this means next to nothing, since everything you care about is either closed or modified beyond recognition, every person is still keeping their distance, every step out the door means donning a disposable mask because you refuse to buy a reusable one, refuse to spend money on what, years later, will be a reminder of that time in 2020 when everyone got shut inside their homes, and every day, you waited for the plague doctors from the 14th century, with their long black robes and bird beak masks, to come parading down the streets. But whether or not you want to, you will remember this. You will remember, every two weeks, taking your car all the way down Terwilliger from the base of the OHSU hill to where it dead-ends at Lake Oswego, what you’ve come to refer to as “the quarantine loop,” a drive you take so that your car, itself caked in dust, remembers its purpose. You are trying to remember your purpose. You are trying to be grateful to work and to write, and you are, but God, how the edge of it all—this world, its sickness, its bloodbath of arguments—seeps into the heart of each identical day. “How are you holding up?” we ask each other, and what a question. We answer with a shrug. We rearrange our living rooms, we sit on interminable Zoom calls, we make weekend trips to the hardware store. We look out the windows, our windows, the only place there is to look, and pray that, whatever we see there, will one day once again make sense.
This morning, a Sunday, I wake late, despite the light pouring into the room, a habit I’ve fallen into since church has been cancelled. Unnatural, unwelcome, but already, a behavior I can’t pull myself out of. This morning, my heart thick with a mood. I pull myself out of bed, and the first thing I see is a text from a friend, something I’d posted on Facebook seven years ago today—a reminder from St. Augustine to sing. In spite of everything, no matter what. Sing! I smile, but I do not sing. I know which book the quote came from. It’s the same book I’m currently rereading, the book I was reading, it seems, at exactly this time, seven years ago. Just yesterday, I read in it that the most often repeated command in Scripture is to sing. From something I read some time ago, I know the other is “do not fear.” Not what we’d expect from the Bible, perhaps not even what we’d expect from God. This morning, I read Exodus, God coming down on Mount Sinai in darkness and smoke. The people afraid, telling Moses, “You talk to Him for us.” How God is all things at once: smoke and darkness, light and clear skies. How we are all of this because He is all of this—we, made in the image of God. I open my laptop, and there, on the home page, is the command again: “sing.” This time, from a Psalm, “O sing unto the Lord a new song: sing unto the Lord, all the earth.” Yes, God, I get it. You want me to sing. I sit down on the couch, and I cry. I had been planning today to rip out ivy and sew seeds of wildflowers, my first foray into growing something since I tended succulents as a child. After days of rain, today, sun. Perfect, but I look at the ground, my heart filled with smoke, and I think, why? How will I know if they’ll even grow? Yes, the Lord says. Plant them anyway. I sigh, which, okay, is one letter away from singing. Sing, St. Augustine, the Psalms, God Himself commands us. Sing, perhaps, so you do not fear. Maybe planting a garden, like writing, like loving, is one more act of faith. God in the seed, God in the dark. “You talk to Him for us,” the people told Moses, and he did. Who knows if he felt like it or not?
Quarantine life is not that different from ordinary life, except that it is entirely different. I have always stayed home more often than not, but it takes on another flavor when I have little choice. Every week, the grocery store (like most of us, my only outing) seems more replenished, and yet, every week, something cuts through the assurance. This week, it was blue Xs on the floor at the checkout stands, topped with bold white letters screeching, “Please stand here.” This week, it was periodic announcements over the loud speaker, telling us to wash our hands and cover our coughs and generally keep away from other humans. When I walked down the still-empty aisle where the grains and legumes should’ve been, there was a young guy standing in the middle of it, staring at the barren shelves in exasperation or disbelief or both. “Sad times in this aisle, huh?” I said to him. He turned to me, and with that same stricken expression, he said, “I just want f*cking rice.” I think that is the emblem of our collective feelings at this point. We just want f*cking rice. We just want our crazy world to go back to garden variety crazy. It is a curious thing, to be entrenched in collective trauma. I am more accustomed to being entrenched in my own trauma—to feel the world within me crack and slide away, while the world without continues on. But now, it’s as if that world has been yanked inside out. I log into Facebook, to my bank account, to YouTube, to anything, and I’m ricocheted back and forth between attempts at reassurance and a kind of wild panic I have only seen in animals trying to outrun a forest fire. Over the weekend, my neighbors had a load of dirt delivered, which has since been residing on the side of the road, covered in a sad white tarp that is no doubt designed to protect it from the rain, but which strikes me as far too similar to the white sheets laid over dead bodies. I have since been fighting the urge to leave my house and stride across the street with a homemade headstone, emblazoned with the epitaph, “Here lies the earth, in a heap on the floor. We no longer know what to make of ourselves. Perhaps, if we stay very still, this downpour will not wash us all away.”
In Poland, there’s a grove of pines known as the Crooked Forest, so named for the one hundred trees whose trunks bend at ninety degrees just above the ground, then after a few feet, curve back to the sky. They were planted in the 1930s, and no one knows why they grew, or more likely, were cultivated to grow this way. It’s hard not to find the symbolism in that: the way we bend ourselves, our world into unnatural shapes, so assured of a purpose that, years and years later, no one can recall. Or, to take it another way, the way the world bends us—the pressure of storms that push us into angles we have no choice but to adapt to. In Portland, it’s spring, the buds erupting on the trees after a long winter’s absence. It’s hard not to find the symbolism in that: how every year, we forget to expect it, and every year, God revives our world, ourselves nonetheless. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the nature of mistakes, how much we’re bound to the consequences of what we’ve done. Are we condemned to live at crooked angles because something, someone, even our own untraceable logic pushed us this way? Or can we course correct, accept the angle but only for so long, before we straighten back up to the sky? I like the cherry blossoms because, most often, they are one of the first things to bloom, sometimes even before the winter has fully passed. I like the defiance of a Northwest spring—the riot of pink, purple, yellow, white against the backdrop of rain and mud and leafless trees. I like the singing of the birds in the still-dark morning, the quiet stirring of “things as they are” not content to become “things as they will be.”
The Bible I read every morning is the Bible I’ve owned since fourth grade, an NIV rife with notes and asterisks and underlines, a book I no longer take out of the house, as its pages have detached from II Corinthians onwards. It’s full of symbols that denote different things (“I like this” or “I’ve copied this into a notebook I only had the enthusiasm to maintain for a month”). It also bears the markings of something quite troubling: passages I once considered significant, not for what they taught me about God, but for what I believed they told me about my future. If I know where this strange road is going, I can be ready for whatever comes. But that’s not really how life works, is it? We never know where this strange road is going. But we want to. Even the most carefree among us craves certainty, the way we crave oxygen or sunlight or love. And even those of us who believe in God can find that our belief is of precious little comfort when the bottom drops out, or we get in a bind, or the bricks paving the way before us don’t look like the ones we’d hoped to walk on. So where, then, do we run? To our trite talk about “God’s will” (which, let’s be honest, none among us truly understands)? Or do we discount Him entirely and console ourselves with the delusion that we can be god, all the while nursing the sick wound within that knows we can be nothing of the sort? I don’t believe these are the only options. Last week, it occurred to me, for the first time in twenty-plus years of Christianity, that the tree of life was also in the garden—unrestricted, in the center of everything, beside the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Unlike this second tree, the fruit of life was free to eat, and yet, Adam and Eve seem not to have noticed it. “The tree that is in the middle of the garden,” Eve tells the serpent, speaking of the restricted tree—the thing we can’t get at, the limit God has placed on our humanity, and so, of course, it is the only tree we want to eat from. But I wonder what would’ve happened if they—if we—were to have chosen life instead. If we would trust God with all we cannot know, could we taste true life, instead of eating the fruit that turns to ashes in our mouths? For the knowledge we need is not the kind we’re so hell-bent on running after. It is not the unattainable certainty of knowing what’s coming—it is the certainty of knowing Who has come, and is with us still, and will be always, “even to the end of the world.”
What do you do? people ask. I’m a writer, I answer. All my life, always, even when the answer includes writer and… Even during the seasons when this fact was more like fiction. I’m a writer, I answer, a gut reaction, a compulsion, a thing I can’t stop saying no matter how predictable the conversation that follows. What do you write? people ask, and I know what they’re thinking: copywriter, journalist, scribbler of quippy gimmicks about hair products, new technology, all the cool things in this vastly cool world. Creative nonfiction, memoir, I tell them. I write about myself, vastly uncool and still mostly inscrutable, despite having spent the better part of my life in my own head. Oh, they say. Are you writing a book? Yes, I say. Always. At any given time, I am writing a book and have many others waiting in the wings. But I only write one at a time. I am a serial monogamist, in it for the long haul, even when my books become as inscrutable as lovers, staring back at me from the pages like we speak a different language. What is it you’re trying to tell me? we say to each other, and now I’m back in my head and out of the conversations with the people, who’ve moved onto a different topic, having reached the end of their interest in my work. Why do you write? is a question I am rarely asked, and yet, I have an answer: it’s a gut reaction, a compulsion, a thing I can’t stop doing, even when the work unravels like yarn in my hands, and what was once a neat little ball becomes a pile of chaos, tangled, inscrutable, begging to be questioned, to find out just what it is we are trying to do.
While running this morning, I stopped to stretch and overheard a mother trying to coax a child on a bike. She was leading him home, and he put his feet down on the street and stopped. “You had a choice,” she told him. “We could’ve gone to the park or to see the lady with the bird houses. You chose the park, and we went there. Now we have to go home.” And for a second, the child put his feet back on the pedals and moved, then he stopped again. “You had a choice,” she told him again, and again, she narrated the sequence of events. He started moving again, and then he stopped again, and again, she told him, “You had a choice.” And then he started to cry. “What’s wrong?” she asked. “I want to see the lady with the bird houses!” he wailed. “You had a choice,” she told him, and now, it had become a mantra, like if she said it enough times, it would sink into his head and he would see the logic behind it. But he did not see the logic. He cried louder. “I want to see the lady with the bird houses!” At this point, I started to run again because I didn’t think I could hear “you had a choice” one more time. I didn’t think it would do this young, patient mother any good for me to go up to her and start quoting Robert Frost, who also had a choice—between two roads that diverged in a yellow wood, and he was sorry he could not travel both. I didn’t think it would do this young mother any good for me to say, “I understand where he’s coming from,” or to tell the child this will only be the first of many times he has to choose between two paths, and while having the freedom to make a choice is, in itself, a great privilege, it does not always—and in fact, does not usually—eliminate the pain that comes from riding through the park, but not getting to see the lady with the bird houses.
“When I was a child,” the apostle Paul writes, “I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.” When I was a child, I read books about vampires and dreamt of being a photographer who moved to the rain forest. I was flung out into existence and made to contend with what the world actually was versus what I wanted it to be. I developed what the Germans call weltschmerz, the depression that arises when reality doesn’t align with the ideals in your head. I’ve always had a lot of things in my head. As a child, I made up stories as soon as I learned to talk. It was no great surprise to anyone when I decided to become a writer, for I had always been one, but to take that leap—to jump the line between the dream world and reality and pull them in together—well, that was when I started to hear a lot of talk about how much smarter it would be to become a lawyer. I’ll confess, more than some of that talk came from me. When I was whirled into adulthood, I pulled my child self along with me, and yes, for a long while, this included childish ways. But not entirely. “The creative adult is the child who has survived,” Ursula Le Guin once said. How remarkable it is to have survived. How remarkable it is to look at the world, and to not lose all hope for the world, and to understand that the only way to contend with any of it is to the know the God to whom it all belongs. When I became a woman, it was not because I turned 18 or 32, not because I got a real job or learned to walk away from creativity and dreams, but because I surrendered to the God who made all of me and learned to let Him teach me what was worth holding onto.