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.
The morning glories have just begun blooming, and every day, it’s been 100 degrees. So every morning, I go outside and lavish them with a bucket of water, praying they will survive. “Before you know what kindness really is,” writes Naomi Shihab Nye, “you must lose things, / feel the future dissolve in a moment / like salt in a weakened broth.” What I am only beginning to understand: sometimes, I am that weakened broth, and sometimes, the future—scattered in the expanse of my failings—dissolves within me. Other times, I am the salt, poured out as the offering I never wanted to be. Other times still, I am both, the way keeping flowers alive can seem like the only tangible way to ensure that something good stays awake in the world. The connectivity of it all unravels me. How it’s all intermingled, like dye in the water—anything I plunge into it is stained, which means everything Christ pulls out of it has the power to be washed clean. And yet, “how desolate the landscape can be / between the regions of kindness,” writes Nye. How desolate the landscape can be between the part of me that, mere weeks ago, stood sweating on a hillside, hacking a bush out of the ground with the back of a hammer—pulling and twisting and yanking and swearing until the roots of it split and came free in my hands—and the part of me that now stands on that same hillside, each sweltering and desperate morning, and prays over a patch of flowers, Live. Please live. How I want to be able to say more of myself than, I did not kill anything today. When the woman poured perfume on Jesus’s feet and wiped them clean with her tears and with her hair, He said, “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much.” I think I am beginning to understand what He meant: that pouring ourselves upon Him is the only way to bridge the wasteland between the regions of kindness—the desolation that spans the distance between forgiving and being forgiven.
For some time now, I’ve had a succulent with no roots. It sits on top of the soil, wholly unattached, yet still green. I water it every two weeks, and every two weeks, I lift it up to see if it’s grown roots. It hasn’t. It had roots when I first got it. It also had more leaves. I cannot now recall when things began to change—when it lost its leaves, its roots—but then, these last years have been a blur. Sometimes, you can move into an apartment, set everything down, and leave it all right where it is until the contractors come to repair a wall that’s been damaged for, what? Four years? Three? You have no idea. All you know is you’ve been staring at that water stain, that peeling paint, for so long you still expect to see it when you look across the room. Sometimes, you can shove everything you love into a closet, snip the ties to your foundation and not even notice they’re gone until, one day, you realize that you’re floating, or rather, skimming the surface with your feet barely brushing the ground. But your leaves are still green. You keep getting watered, and somehow, it’s keeping you alive. “I don’t think that plant is still alive,” one friend says. “I think it’s just pretending so you don’t feel bad for killing it,” and I can understand this because haven’t I, so often, done the same? Another says, “Maybe it will re-root itself if you just give it time.” I like this second answer better.
“Tell me,” Mary Oliver writes, “what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” I tell her, “I don’t know.” I tell her about dreams. I tell her about post-its and piles of books. I tell her about quiet apartments, quiet moments, quiet gaps in faith. I tell her you can only find so much symbolism in driving around with the menacing yellow light hovering next to the “E.” Sooner or later, you have to stop for gas, wait in the line, even if it’s a long one. Sooner or later, you develop something like patience. What is it you plan to do. What is it I plan to do? I plan to go on until my body won’t let me. I plan to wake up every morning and find a reason to be glad that I’m still here. Last week, I skipped town and carelessly, deliberately left my plants at home to freeze. When I returned, there they were, green and unblaming, as if to say, We understand. Sometimes, the need for water is just one need too much.
I remember, as a child, being astonished to learn that polar bears had black skin beneath their white fur, that a hummingbird could beat its wings up to 70 times per second, that a California barking spider was not a real arachnid, but rather, one my father invented to disguise the fact that he’d farted. Later, I learned other things: that it was possible for the temperature to be too cold for snow, that duct tape over a bathtub drain could suffice as a stopper, that my natural way of speaking made it difficult for some to detect whether or not I was being sincere. Even later, I learned other things still: that losing a parent rips out a child’s center of gravity (no matter how old that child is), that stress can wreak incalculable havoc on a body, that no amount of guilt can make me head down a path I know in my marrow I am not meant to walk. What I would still like to learn: what it means to let go, what it means to hold on, what it means to have a God who can bind up the tattered pieces and untie all the knots.
Winter came quickly this year. It’s not yet three p.m., not yet December, and already, the light is leaking out of the sky. Somewhere, someone is dying. Someone is always dying now, and you’ve reached a point where you wonder how you have, thus far, been spared. But of course, you haven’t been—death has come close, stolen into your home, and made off with your father, your grandmothers. It’s circled like a vulture around countless friends and relatives. Maybe it’s even circled around you. And there it is: survivor’s guilt. Why should you be spared? Why should you be allowed to wake up and breathe and move through the world unhindered by decay or disease? Of what use are you, really? These questions that seep in on long winter nights, these questions no one can answer. “I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing,” Agatha Christie once said. You try to believe her. You go on a walk before the sun sinks behind the hills. You thank God you can still feel its warmth on your face, though the cold snaps through your coat. At night, you crawl beneath a thousand blankets and intone a line from Gina Ochsner’s “Unfinished Business”: “We are here, we are here, we know that we know.” You slip a hand under your shirt, shut your eyes, and feel your heart—beating, beating. Alive, alive.
I’ve been teaching myself to do handstands, after years of being afraid of them. After years of recovering from one injury after another, when just please let me keep doing this one thing superseded all thoughts of doing something more. It’s been two months since I started kicking my legs up over my head and forcing myself to stay there for five breaths, seven, ten. I still need the wall to support me, but I can feel myself getting stronger—in the moments of inversion, yes, but more so in the others. When my neck no longer arbitrarily throws itself out of whack. When I can lift and pull and reach for things without tweaking my shoulder. When I’m in plank for the ten thousandth time in fifteen years of practicing yoga, and suddenly, it’s bearable. It’s true physically, and it’s true metaphorically: nothing beats learning to hold your own weight. I have spent most of my life feeling like a glass that’s overflowing, spilling needs and wants and neuroses all over the floor. I have teetered between the belief that being “fixed” means I won’t feel this way anymore and that being “fixed” is not precisely possible. But in fifteen months of working from home and living alone and spending the bulk of my time with Jesus, I’ve come to understand neither of those are true. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free,” Paul writes in Galatians 5:1. Freedom, to me, means space. It means making room for God to come in and say, “Actually, you are just who I made you to be. Now, let me show you how to be who you are and have all your brokenness bound up in Me.” It means sanity—not the sterilized, medicated, gray-eyed sanity the world offers, but the fierce, enveloping, whole-person sanity of Jesus. It means what Paul writes in II Timothy 1:7, “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” It means approaching my well-worn patterns with courage and asking, “Why am I eating this, why am I doing this, is this book really finished?” and not becoming undone when I discover things in need of mending. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. It means hoisting myself upside down, day after day, and settling into the uncomfortable but wonderful truth that what I’ve been conditioned to accept as a given is actually capable of change.