A number of months after I quit my job, I went shopping, and I only bought sweatshirts—things I wouldn’t wear outside the house. I was, both consciously and unconsciously, declaring that, whatever my next money-making endeavor would be, it would be done from home. From the too-expensive desk beside the window that doesn’t open, and yet, still manages to pulse with cold air. In my loft apartment with no insulation, and therefore, an alarming electric bill—the price I willingly pay for the solitude most everyone said I’d never find in the city. In the non-standard working hours of afternoon and evening, since my inability to think coherently before ten a.m. only seems to be worsening as I get older, and so it’s become even more essential that the early hours are reserved for physical exertion instead of mental. I’ve always been a bit of a brat when it comes to getting what I want. I figured out how to start classes during second period instead of first my senior year of high school, got through college in three years (with mostly afternoon classes), and had my Master’s by age twenty-three, all while remaining adamant about being a writer. And in all the years since, through all the jobs and bouts of writer’s block and seasons when creativity came slowly—when who I am got watered down to nearly unrecognizable degrees—at my core, I have still been two things: a writer and a brat. A writer in that, no matter what, I can’t not write, can feel my brain being turned into sloshing psychosis when I don’t, and have come to realize, for me, a daily practice is essential. A brat in that, at thirty-one, I am still the two-year-old who insisted on getting a blue mattress, despite the high unlikelihood that such a thing existed. When we walked into the mattress store, lo and behold, there was a blue one, and I ran toward it, flung myself on top of it, and my father laughed and told the salesman, “I guess we’re getting that one.” I’ve been thinking of that story a lot lately, in this time of scheming and praying about what to do next—sitting in my quiet apartment, wearing a rotation of sweatshirts, writing every day, and insisting all of this remains—and I’m reminded that when my demands become their clearest and, to some, their most unreasonable, I am often on the cusp of getting what I want.
A birthday blessing
Maybe this year the tumor
will turn out to be benign,
“I love you” will be spoken
in earnest, and the snowstorm
will dissolve into rain. Maybe
a “yes” will push up from
the pile of “no,” overflowing
these months like Kleenex
spilling from the trash.
Maybe this year the skylights
won’t leak, and jobs won’t
be quit, and friends once kept
close as not-so-supple skin
will stick around instead
of taking their leave. Maybe
this is the year when
the reflection in the mirror
begins again to look familiar,
like someone you once knew
long ago, or someone you
would still like to be.
I hate sweeping more than any other chore. It’s time-consuming, obnoxious, and when you live beneath a colony of pine trees, utterly futile, especially in autumn. I let the pine needles collect on my deck for far too long, before resigning myself to three minutes of the most half-hearted attempt at sweeping ever conducted by a member of the human race, and I do so knowing I will have to do this again days later. So why do I bother? Well, aside from having been raised to respect property, I sweep because eventually (meaning, like, tomorrow) it will start to rain, and it will keep raining, and the pine needles will keep falling, and they will band together in villages, beneath which mildew will grow and turn my deck into a slimy, putrid mess. I sometimes wonder if this is what happens when we harden our hearts, when pieces of the world fall upon us, and keep falling, and we let those pieces collect and band together, beneath which bitterness and resignation begin to grow, turning our hearts festering and fearful. And maybe it’s easier—and at times, even seems to make more sense—to give way to the ferment instead of daily repeating the act of coming to Jesus to let Him sweep away the fear and the worry, all the doubts we talk ourselves into believing are inevitable, and maybe they are. But Jesus always has a broom, and it’s been my experience that He is far more willing to sweep than I am. Often, I’m the one lying prostrate beneath the weight of it all, staring blankly into the sky, acting like no such thing as a broom had ever been invented, or like I don’t have a God who is longing to brush the fallen things of this world from my heart.
It didn’t get warm today. For the first time in I don’t know how long, the clouds kept the cold in and even brought some rain. I stayed all afternoon in a chair with a novel I’ve read twice before and got up to make dinner too late because I wanted to finish the book before I moved. Seven years ago today, I careened onto Portland’s un-navigable streets with every material possession I could cram into my car. Four apartments, four jobs, and countless gains and losses later, here I still am. “Do you ever think about leaving?” someone asked me the other day. It’s a question I’m asked far more often than I think to ask anyone else. Perhaps I have the look of one who is unsettled. “I don’t know where I’d go,” has become my answer, the thrill of the hunt gone out of me. I’ll take the chair and the blanket and the warm cup of tea. I’ll take the quiet I love and tuck tight into my world of books and trees, and I won’t even put up the pretense, like I did in my younger days, that this is enough. It’s not, but it is what it is, and it has been worse, and we humans like to pretend thoughts like these are comforting. The Gorge is burning. Over 30,000 acres have been destroyed, and I haven’t hiked it in four years. What have I been doing? Everything and nothing. Working. Turning thirty. Watching seasons turning. Counting down the days as if they held some sort of promise. Earlier today, I finished Blaise Pascal’s Pensées, a book I started to read last summer because I had encountered this line in another: “And were it true, we do not think all philosophy is worth one hour of pain.” Here we lie, Portland, you and I, after all this time. We do not look the same as we once did, and good thing, because now there can be no mistake: we are not the same at all.
Talk to me about the habit of art, and I’ll tell you about a workspace covered in Post-its, of the years when writing was relegated to weekends, of the people I neglected because of it. I’ll tell you of the times I tried to be more orderly and keep my mental breadcrumbs in notebooks or Word docs, of how my hand always found its way back to neon sticky notes, of how I eventually accepted the chaos. I’ll tell you how my process never felt good enough, full enough, long enough when compared to anyone else’s, how it took ten years and five books to convince me I must be doing something right, how there are days and mostly nights I’m still not sure. How outer life began to choke the space I’d carved for creativity, and I began to hoard what precious time I did have, guard it like the only thing that kept me sane, and maybe it was. But then I’ll tell you why I had to change that. How it had been a year since I’d driven the 20 miles to see my family, how I couldn’t remember the last time I’d read a book when I wasn’t half-asleep, how when something had to suffer for it, it was always someone. How maybe art is just as much what we do as who we are, and I didn’t like the person I’d become. I’ll tell you about a detour: a pile of theology by the chair, a pile of novels and memoirs by the bed, mid-week lunches and entire Sundays taken up by friends, whole afternoons writing essays plucked from scatters of Post-its. And yes, I put that meal on my credit card, and yes, I am still single, and no, I don’t have the life I always wanted. But at least now I recognize the woman who’s living it, and maybe the habit of art pushes us towards exactly this: how to uncover ourselves in the midst of it, how to reshape when it climbs past its edges, how to see it as the root of habitation, how to consider all it takes to make a home.
In Pensées, Blaise Pascal writes, “We naturally believe ourselves far more capable of reaching the centre of things than of embracing their circumference.” I am always trying to get to the bottom of it, to arc my compass wide as it needs to go, so long as I’m still digging hard into that meaty middle point. Protractor to measure and manipulate the angles, graph paper keeps them all contained in boxes I would one day learn to break open. I was good at math, and I confess, a part of me misses the certainty of it: Two plus two equals four, until—my mathematician brother reminds me—you get into the theoretical stuff, and those neat and tidy equations go right out the window, and back you go to circling. Circling on paper that gives out when doused in water, blue lines bleeding your mess of calculations all over infinite space. How do you quantify it then? All those exponentials could never match my variables. I would never believe in simply orbiting, when I could be held by the bottom of gravity.
When you live beneath trees, moss collects on the roof, traps the moisture in the ceiling. The paint peels from the walls. Hidden water trickles down beam and post, a faint scent of mildew you only catch while lying down. Every winter, the snow level rises, so every winter, you gather more defenses: purchase a dehumidifier, stuff DampRids in the corners. You wait less and less time before you shake baking soda on the carpets, stretch plastic wrap across the windows. You learn to air out sheets after washing, before folding them away. You learn certain stains only lift when you combine chemicals with pressure. Every winter, you think you can’t possibly survive another, and then you do. Every winter, you learn better how to bear the weight of water.
What, exactly, have you been doing? people ask me in my first week sans “real job.”
I blink at them like a mole who’s just emerged into the sun. I have no idea.
But then, I realize that I do know:
Thinking. I’ve been thinking, and writing a lot of it down. I’ve been making a list of what I’m good at: helping people, solving problems, fixing things, and making them better. It’s why I like editing. I can see what others can’t.
Quieting. I’ve been quiet, and have been quieting the world around me, such as I can. I’ve been keeping my phone on “do not disturb,” trying to retrain myself not to react like Pavlov’s dog to every chime, twing, and ding.
Eating. I’ve been making a lot of grilled cheese, standing over the stove and watching butter melt into bread, and not burning it because I’m not also doing ten other things. I’ve been cooking food when I need it and not stockpiling meals like I’m preparing for the apocalypse.
Grieving. That is to say, I’ve been letting loose the feral knots that years of grief have wound around my heart, which is not so much an act of effort as it is one of release. It, too, requires quiet, and I have come to find, not much else.
Longing. I’ve been feeling, for lack of a better verb, the spaces in my heart that have yet to be filled, and wondering how I’m supposed to find contentment nonetheless. I’ve been asking God to define the line between content and complacent.
Resting. I am not good at this. But one thing years of a fast-paced life will beat out of you is any false enthusiasm for goals you don’t actually want to pursue. Funny how the narrow way comes into focus when the wider road loses all its luster.
Pursuing. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say I’m being pursued, by a God who brought me out into the spacious place I prayed for. Though there’s nothing yet to fill this space, well, mine is a God of contradictions, and perhaps that is the point.
Dear life outside of work:
I’m sorry you’ve been so neglected. I’m sorry your surfaces are covered in dust, your floors caked with pine needles and clumps of blonde hair. I’m sorry I do not remember your name, or how it knit together with my own. I’m sorry it’s been so long since I’ve listened to what you have to say. I’m sorry my path became so worn with routine that I couldn’t diverge from it, for fear I wouldn’t find my way back. I’m sorry I kept turning back. I’m sorry for all the times I tried and failed to unearth you again. I’m sorry for how long I insisted we could learn to make this work, that we could be like everyone else if we just pushed a little harder. I’m sorry I seem only to know how to count the cost, and that my reparations to you came slowly, if it all. I’m sorry. But I will learn how to make reparations. I will run the dust rags over every wall and countertop, and sweep the pine needles outside where they belong. I will vacuum and cut my hair from where it gets wound around the rollers, as many times as it takes until you’re clean. I will clear the road of brambles disguised as common sense and uncover you from where you’re buried with my lifeblood pumping always just a bit too quickly, and I’m sorry in advance for the times I’ll look back. But when you call to me from where I’ve stalled out along the path, I’ll turn your way. I will move in your uncharted direction. I will learn to remember your name.