I have lived in Portland, Oregon, for twelve years—one thousand miles north of the place of my upbringing. And so, for that same amount of time, I have endured what I’ve come to call “The Great Darkness,” i.e. those months when we get a few hours of low-grade daylight and spend most of our time feeling like we’re wandering around in the middle of the night. I just learned that the latitude of Portland is 45 degrees, which puts it exactly halfway between the equator and the North Pole, which means, among other things, that The Great Darkness could be much, much worse. For a dozen years, I have lived with this apparently moderate darkness with nothing more than the idle comment or complaint, but this year—this year, I am taking it personally. I can’t stop fixating on it, The Great Darkness, forcing me to turn on a lamp just after lunch, forcing me to get up in the dark, to fetch the mail in the dark, to work in the dark and cook in the dark and do all manner of things in the dark. I am not a sunshine lover. One thing I hate about the place of my upbringing is the sheer intensity of the sun, bearing down without mercy nearly every single day of the year. I do not want perpetual sun, but I do want a more equal balance of dark and light. During the Portland summer, the sun assaults us at 4:00 a.m. and doesn’t retreat until 10:00 p.m., and this too feels like an insult. When I think about it, we spend so little time with an exact division of dark and light, of night and day. We spend most of our time ricocheting between extremes—or rather, being ricocheted against our will between extremes—and not to get all philosophical, but there is a metaphor in that, isn’t there? We want a more equal balance of dark and light, of pain and joy, of sadness and hope. I suppose this year I am taking The Great Darkness personally because I’ve spent much of my existence in the dark side of things—in the pain and in the sadness—and I am tired. I am tired of having to turn on the light, of having to look for the light. I am tired of being told to hold out hope for the light, that the only point of the darkness is the light it will eventually give way to. I am not sure about that—I’m so unsure about it that I’m writing an entire book about it, about the ways the darkness matters in and of itself, for its own sake, and not just for the light that it leads to. The Great Darkness may be unbearable. So be it. But if we spend at least half our lives in it, I think we owe it more than simply trying to escape it.
Every year, I think it—how fast the seasons turn. How quickly we go from hot to cold, from nothing to everything. May I never lose the wonder of a fog bank, of the clouds slung low into the trees, the wonder of cold mist on my face, of the sodden stillness of autumn dripping onto the street. It was one of the first things I loved about this place—that fog, those trees. Early morning, driving back to California from a summer vacation on the Oregon coast, I looked out the backseat window and into a forest and thought, Here. Here is where I want to be. It was something I’d never thought nor felt before. It was, I now know, peace. But peace was not a word I understood then, and over the years, that thought got lost in the swarm of ambition and determination, in the narrative I had crafted about who I was and where I belonged. Over the years, I forgot that moment—but God did not forget, and somehow, He guided me back here. And He kept me here, through all the years I wanted to leave, the years when I feared I’d have to, and the years when maybe I should have. Christians are often told things like, “God knows us better than we know ourselves,” and that makes it sound like we have a secret self, full of hidden desires and latent talents that can only be brought out by fire. And sometimes, that’s true. But my experience in following Jesus has been less akin to getting to know a strange new self and more like being given the freedom to be the self I’ve always been—the one that, for so much of my life, got buried in the snarl of anxiety and depression, of all my controlling narratives and broken coping mechanisms, all the ways we hurtle ourselves through this world on our own. Loving Jesus did not make me love this fog, these trees. Loving Jesus gave me eyes to see them for longer than five seconds, gave me a heart and a mind that could abide with them and with the God who made them, and gave me the peace to say, in spite of everything that’s still snarled and broken—here. Here is where I want to be.
The two great loves of my life (apart from Jesus) have been writing and running. One, I am certain was a gift. From the moment Mrs. Satterfield put a pen in my hand, I was writing stories, and I haven’t stopped since. The other, I am certain was not a gift—certain, in fact, that it was probably the last thing I was meant to start doing. I’ve been running for half my life now, and it has never not been a fight. I am not built to be a runner. I’ve felt it in every injury, every setback, every heave of my asthmatic lungs. Rare has been the season when I haven’t felt it every time I hit the pavement. When I was young, I believed the way to get ahead was to only focus on the things I was good at, and that, to me, was writing and academia and virtually nothing else. But despite this belief, I chose to start running, and I chose to keep running, even when it became abundantly clear that I was not good at it. And perhaps this betrays the fact that my internal and external selves weren’t as aligned as I thought, but I also think it points to something else I’m good at: near obsessive dedication to the things that matter to me. In my book club the other day, someone commented that you can’t “force” creativity, and I said that was true, but that you can create the habit of art—for in the end, all the talent in the world will get you nowhere if you don’t actually make time to write. And that got me thinking: despite the fact that writing is my gift and running is not, I still have to do things to cultivate both. So while I will always feel more at ease putting words on a page than logging miles on a road, in the end, I wonder how different they really are, these things I orient my days, my life, my world around—these things that have become so intrinsically intertwined, I am certain I couldn’t do one without the other. To some extent, natural gifting does matter. But if something calls to you enough to make you stick with it, come flawed genetics or busted tendons, isn’t that what matters more?
I had three great aunts on my mother’s side. Only one did not have children, and I was told—as my mother was told—it was because she didn’t want to “ruin her figure.” But I’m hard-pressed to believe that, not because I don’t think anyone could be so vain, but because it sounds so much like the kind of story we tell to abracadabra our way out of telling the truth. “It needs courage to reveal oneself as one truly is,” Kierkegaard writes, and I agree, but how hard it is to reveal oneself as one truly is. How we trip and stumble over ourselves and each other, each of us carrying a weight possibly no one else knows exists. To look across a room and be the only one in a sea of people who knows how much he hurt you. The breath-catch of feeling a life you’d been preparing to welcome get snatched away without warning. To have learned how to hide physical illness in plain sight. A memory that haunts me still: my boss’s father had died unexpectedly. I knew what had happened, but as I walked into his office, I froze. I said what I always said, then went about my work. I was twenty years old, and though I’d had my struggles, nothing truly terrible had ever happened to me. When my own father unexpectedly died eight years later, I was on the receiving end of that rabbit-in-the-headlights look many times. Though I was not the only one unmoored by his death, still, I felt utterly alone in it. And sometimes, it was just easier to lie: “How’s your summer going?” “Okay, how’s yours?” Easier to pretend than to watch someone watch me in silence or stumble over all the wrong words. My pastor said today that we have the privilege to hear each other’s stories, not the right, and I think that is incredibly true. And I think of something else Kierkegaard writes: “For God sees in secret and knows the distress and counts the tears and forgets nothing.” Some truths, only God will ever know, but I’ve also learned that God can mold the grief in such a way that you go from being struck dumb by others’ pain to becoming the kind of person who sees them in it—a hand, a help, a quiet light in the room—even and perhaps especially when their story is larger than words can hold.
Prayer plant. Latin name, Maranta leuconeura—a name that, if you’re familiar with the Bible, looks suspiciously like “maranatha”: the Aramaic exhortation at the end of I Corinthians that’s typically translated as “Come, Lord.” I’ve named mine Sybill, after the professor of divination in Harry Potter. When I first read, some years ago, that millennials were becoming known for collecting houseplants—a way to tend to those nurturing instincts we were neglecting by not having children—I scoffed. I now have nine houseplants, and I’ve told my brother, if I hit a dozen, he should probably call someone. The other day, I Googled “prayer plant yellow leaves,” after a few of Sybill’s leaves had, obviously, turned yellow. One of the “people also ask” questions Google generated was “why isn’t my prayer plant praying?” The prayer plant gets its name because its leaves fold up at night—an act that someone somewhere decided looked like praying hands. My plant’s leaves move, but I have yet to understand how they look like praying hands, at least not the pious picture of palms pressed together in a steeple. They’re more sprawling, haphazard, which is often how I look when I’m praying and nearly always how I’m feeling. “Why isn’t my prayer plant praying?” The answer is the answer to every question one asks Google about houseplant problems: too much light, or too little, too much water, or too little. Perhaps millennials don’t have children because we’re inclined to Google everything, and these are the kinds of answers Google gives us. One of the more recent additions to my houseplant menagerie is a succulent (also named after a character in Harry Potter), which was a sea-creature purple when I bought it, and now, two weeks later, is bright green. Google: why did my succulent change colors? Answer: succulents turn green when properly cared for and only display their otherworldly colors when neglected. Solution: don’t water it as much—meaning, find that delicate balance between smothering it and killing it, which, come to think of it, is what parenting is all about.
On our first date, I gave you the keys to my car, let you drive us all the way to the Washington side of the Gorge. I didn’t have a smartphone then. I don’t remember if you had a map, other than the hiking guide that told you how to locate the Wind Mountain Trail—so remote, we were the only ones at the trailhead, and we passed no other humans while we walked. Ten years down the line, I wonder at that: my willingness to trust you with my car, my life. How I followed you through a fog-banked forest, and at one point, slipped in the mud. How I lied and said I’d been meaning to get new boots anyway, so sure, we could go for a hike in the middle of November, when in fact I hadn’t owned a pair of hiking boots since I was a child. When we reached the summit, the Gorge was still shrouded in fog. When we came down, we leaned on the back of my car and ate trail mix out of the trunk. I don’t remember how it happened, but at one point, I turned, and you were gone. And there was a moment—more than a moment—when I stood in the damp, insistent silence and wondered if I had made you up. Wondered if I had climbed in the car of my own accord at eight a.m. on a Sunday morning and driven myself to a place I would never figure out how to come back from. But then, you emerged from the mist of the woods, and I stood spooked on the gravel, my voice hooked in my throat, until you held out your hand, and I handed over the keys once more.
A Valentine’s Day Meditation for the Rest of Us
When you learn that St. Valentine is the patron saint of lovers, epilepsy, and beekeepers, you think this makes a terrible kind of sense. What is love, if not emotional epilepsy? What is epilepsy, if not a thousand bee stings to the brain? And what, after all, are bees, if not honey-maddened lovers, slaving away for their queen? You pose these questions to your friend via text, as you sit in your apartment and she sits in a hospital with electrodes glued to her head. You wonder if St. Valentine knew what he was doing, when he married all those lovers against the emperor’s orders. You wonder if any of us ever know what we’re doing—if it isn’t all just a game of terrible chance: fall in love, have a seizure, spend your life tending to the needs of the hive. You’re wearing leggings and an oversized sweatshirt, and you have leftover soup in the fridge. Your friend is wearing her electrodes, looking out a rain-stained window, and eating the raw onions and tomato slice that came to her when she ordered veggies and hummus. This, too, makes a terrible kind of sense. On a day when everything is pink and red and covered in chocolate, somewhere, a lesser known saint is sitting alone, waiting to see what will become of him and choosing to go on living nonetheless.
This morning’s sun rose behind an overcoat of fog, light diffusing between clouds slung low into the trees. Fog used to make me think of Sleepy Hollow—imaginary worlds of headless horsemen. Now it makes me think of every post-apocalyptic movie, rebels ducking between abandoned buildings, marauders around every corner. As I drive into the city, the sun breaks open, then retreats. I pull onto the highway and pass a billboard that reads, “Remember when Portland was known for our food carts and airport carpet?” I remember when Portland was just known for being weird, when people who didn’t live here called it “eclectic” instead of texting me to ask, “Hey, so, how are things going over there?” How are things going over here? We are no longer known for our food carts and airport carpet. Our airport carpet has been rolled up and replaced, and our food carts live behind a fifteen-foot wall crowned with barbed wire. This particular pod of food carts has the word “asylum” in the name, and we crowd around a fire pit with our gyros and pho—a fire pit that emits no warmth, as far as I can tell, even when I hover my hand mere inches above the flame. Some weeks ago, I was at a stoplight, staring at a painted wall that read, “Still here.” At the time, I found it encouraging, but now I wonder, is there merit in simply surviving? On the way home, I pass another billboard, half of which is covered in graffiti. I can’t remember what it says, just the nonsensical spray paint scrawling, the homeless camp right beneath it, the bright November sun now arcing freely across a clear blue sky.
Every year around this time, boxes appear on front lawns, paper signs poking up from them that say things like “free” and “please take.” Inside the boxes are all kinds of pears—Bartlett, Asian, Anjou—picked from neighbors’ garden trees. I have begun to hunt for and hoard signs of normalcy like a dragon plucking gold from villagers’ homes. I don’t even realize I’m doing it, until I come upon something like a box of pears on a lawn, and instantly, my heart unfurls from its fist. A remnant from a time before the strongest thing we felt was fear—fear especially of each other—before the strongest thing we knew was a deep, abiding animosity for anyone who did or said or thought something different from the vein of reason we’d decided was correct. Never have I ever felt truth to be such a fleeting, fickle thing: shape-shifting and elusive as a curl of purple smoke. Never have I ever wished to leave the house and hear people talking about anything else. Several years ago, I was on a bus, crawling through the countryside of Croatia, homes and walls still revealing signs of former wars. We witnessed structure after structure that had been blown to bits, and then, out of nowhere, there’d be a sagging but in-tact cottage, a woman on the porch flapping a tablecloth in the wind. Instantly, a wave of relief would roll through me. So it is with the box of pears. So it is with the group of senior citizens who meet at the park to attend a dance class, reggae pumping through the trees. So it is with the people I wave and say “good morning” to as I run past them, who don’t have time to tell me who’s right or wrong today. So it is with the streets that change only with the seasons, the trees who drop their fruit for everyone, and always have, and always will. On my way back, I choose two pears from one of the boxes and hold them in my open hand.
I’m reading a book right now called Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald. She’s a very intelligent, very scientific writer, whose work I first discovered when she wrote a memoir about grappling with her father’s sudden death. It was the first thing I read after my own father’s sudden death that made me feel as though someone else might understand. This new book is like that other book, but different. I am not scientific. I would sooner set myself to relearning calculus than take another biology class. But I love the natural world, love especially the trees—things that became, years ago, my primary reason for staying in Portland, after suffering a terrible heartbreak that made me want to jettison myself into another life, another skin, another world. But I could not say goodbye to these trees. The place where I live now is surrounded by trees and ivy (so much ivy), and this evening, I lie out flat on my deck and read Macdonald’s book, pausing every page or so to look up at the trees. It’s been hot, and I haven’t been sleeping well, and life with all its major and minor grievances has put me in a foul mood. I have come outside, despite the heat, to escape the oppressive drone of the air conditioner. I’m reading an essay about Macdonald’s expedition to a remote location in Chile, studied for its resemblance to Mars, or what Mars once was. Billions of years. Microscopic forms of life. Extreme cold. Extreme wind. The scientist, who is the subject of Macdonald’s essay, who feels most at home in this harsh terrain. I look up at the trees, my trees (such as they can be). While I’ve been out here, the temperature has dropped, and a breeze begins to slip across my skin. It was supposed to be just as hot today as it was yesterday, wasn’t supposed to cool down until late tonight. Yet, here we are. How little we still know. How much we try to predict, to control this world, our worlds, and still, they slip through our fingers. And really, thank God. All the unknowing drives me mad, but I am also convinced it is the only thing that keeps me sane. I return to Macdonald’s story. The trees sway and settle. The wind slips over me again.