Love Begets

March 31st, 2014

On November 22 of last year, I lost my voice. I’m not talking laryngitis; I mean my words. They scattered from me like a covey of quail, and I knew, standing there amid the ragged stubble of a waning year, that there was nothing I could do to call them back, nothing but lean into the cold wind of sorrow and wait. Words, like all winged things, have a life of their own; believing in their return often feels like believing in the hope of spring when the whole world is laid barren and birdless by the ravages of winter.

But on November 22, I was too tired and sad to care if they ever came back. That was the day that my dog Caspian died, and some fundamental innocence in me died with him. The past two years have just about broken my heart, not by the ruin of a single blow, but by the slow-growing burden of accumulated sorrow, of grief upon grief that has seemed relentless at times. But when Caspian was diagnosed with cancer last spring, the very day we were supposed to leave on a long-awaited jaunt to the sea in our ’62 Airstream, it was too much to bear. I couldn’t bear it, in fact: when I heard the diagnosis coming out of the specialist’s mouth and saw the tears gathering in my husband’s eyes, a great, black cavern seemed to open inside of me and I felt myself falling into a bottomless place haunted by all my worst fears. The vet droned on unintelligibly about how there was nothing that could be done and what to expect in the coming days, but my soul was crying out in silence: Jesus, catch me! (He did, by the way. Strong arms shot out of that darkness and held me so tightly I could almost feel them about my physical body. I am here, that grip told me, in words beyond words.)

“How long?” Philip said in a voice that sounded nothing like Philip’s.

The vet was cautious. “Weeks to months,” he said. “But it’s an advanced case, and moving fast.”

We walked out into the sunshine of an April afternoon with Caspian tugging blissfully on the leash, ecstatic to be released after a night’s stay at the best veterinary hospital in the state. As soon as we were in the car, Philip and I stared at one another, frightened by the anguish in each other’s eyes.

“Let’s take him,” I choked. “Let’s go home and pack that Airstream if it takes all night and let’s get on the road by dawn. Let’s run away from all this sadness and give Caspian the trip to the beach of his life.”

And that is precisely what we did. If there’s ever been a heart on this earth that loved that Airstream or our island destination more than Philip and me, it was Caspian. In the ten years of tramping about in our Silver Girl, Caspian had only been left behind once—and he was so devastated we vowed never to do it again. Caspian wasn’t taking any chances, though. He always knew when we were even talking about packing up for another adventure, and would park himself by the door of the trailer, refusing to budge until the moment of departure, wherein, assured of a seat in the car with his nose on the console, he could finally relax. Sick as he was, this time was no exception. I actually had to feed him his breakfast in the Explorer the morning we left as he’d loaded himself up before I had hardly opened the kitchen door.

Philip kept calling it our “Shadowlands” trip, and, indeed, there was a keenness to those sunlit days that only sorrow can lend, a sharp brilliance against which both pain and pleasure stood out in dazzling clarity. For Caspian, still feeling well enough to enjoy everything, it was a dream come true: he got to eat whatever he wanted and do whatever he pleased. He got to spend whole days at Philip’s side as he worked (the Airstream doubles as “remote office” by day) and long, late afternoons on the beach with us or strolling the fishing pier in the cool of the evening. He had half of whatever I was eating at any given time, and he even got a sip of ale at the oyster bar on the wharf. Indeed, if we were living in the shadowlands, Caspian was frisking the foothills of heaven.

On the beach he was always off lead—for the first time in his life. Suddenly all the leashes and life-jackets and relentless safety of the past twelve years seemed silly. Worse than silly: in this light they looked like life-killers; joy-stealers. I had feared losing Caspian since the night we brought him home; I remember sitting on the kitchen floor clutching that squirming bundle of six week-old fluff to my heart and bursting into tears. It terrified me how much I loved him. And it terrified me that there was a world out there so suddenly swarming with Dangerous Things that could hurt him or take him from me. There were cars, and stagnant pools tainted with evil viruses, and ticks and vaccine reactions. And there was cancer, the thing I feared most of all. Now that it had come, I could not fail to see that my gentle Lord had softened this sentence of death with a radiant milieu of mercies. The very fact that we were all here together for a few fleeting weeks in a place that held some of the dearest memories of our lives was an unmistakable kindness. And Caspian’s illness did not mar the trip as much as it illumined it, revealing each moment for the fire-hearted gem that it was. I watched him trot free along the shore with the inquisitive abandon of a puppy and I wanted to run with him, throwing off the fears that fettered my joys to earth, free as the wind and the swooping gulls and the curls of foam tossed up on the murmuring tide—free as my dying dog, whose happiness anchored me in the moment even as my soul took wing with this glimpse of undying things. It reminded me of that scene at the end of The Last Battle when everyone was running together with such gathering gladness into Aslan’s Country, the real Narnia. We caught Caspian’s joy, Philip and I, racing with him along a deserted beach in the saffron radiance of a dying day, and the incandescence of it will be with us for life.

I wrote in my journal: So here is what I want to remember and never forget: Anxiety is the devil. Fear is a taste of hell because it cuts us off from the ever-offered rest of God’s love. And fear cannot do one damn thing to avert the thing feared. Sorrow, on the other hand, is a kind friend, and when it comes, grace comes, too, and all the tender mercies of God. All fear is the fear of loss and death; all love comes with a price tag of pain; all true sorrow has its counterpoint of joy. And it’s real. We’re living it in the most vivid way. And if we’re running along the beach laughing at one moment and weeping over the grief that is coming the next, well then, this is life abundant, the full package. And the joy is more real than the grief because the joy is forever and the pain is for but the passing shadow of this life.

Beyond all expectation, Caspian lived to travel with us once more to our island refuge in mid-September, though by that time he was completely blind. The dignity with which he accepted this sad new development was one of the most touching things I have ever seen. The vet explained to me that dogs don’t regard “suffering” as a concept the way we humans do; they are generally very philosophical about hardship, accepting what comes their way with deeply instinctual adaptability. I witnessed that first-hand when Caspian lost his sight: after a day or so of deep confusion, he shook off the gloom and started feeling his way around the house with his nose, reacquainting himself with thresholds and walls and furniture. He nosed his way up our steep staircase, gingerly at first, and then with astonishing confidence. He even wanted to go to the barn with us in the evenings as he’d always done, though it must have been frightening to have the goats and sheep and chickens all swarming about and not be able to see them.

The island was no different: Caspian didn’t have to see to know exactly where he was and to be excited about it (or to run up to strangers, barking an ecstatic greeting, only to run right past them). And though the disease had certainly progressed, neither Philip nor I had the least doubt that our brave little dog was happy—glad just to be with us, salt-kissed and sun-warmed in a kindly breeze under a generous sky. Whenever we were on the beach, I would bury my face in that gorgeous spotted ruff of his (I always said it looked like the ermine collar on a princely robe) just because I could. Our days with him were dwindling, and we all knew it. On the last afternoon, I stayed behind on the beach while Philip took Caspian back to the Airstream, and as I watched their retreating figures, my eyes burned with tears. It was the end of an era. The loss of a particular innocence loomed: Philip and I both had lost dogs in our lives—but we had never lost our dog. Caspian was so much a part of us, we hardly knew “us” without him. We weren’t just “dog people,” ardently as we love the canine species as a whole. We were Caspian people.

So, the day came in late November when Philip and I had to prove our love to this faithful companion of ours by making the decision that every lover of dogs prays they will never have to face. Yet even that black day was made tender by mercies: the sudden, unmistakable downturn that left us no doubts; the fact that we were both with him; the gentle expiration with his head on Philip’s lap. Our kind-hearted vet hugged me hard when it was all over. “I’ve rarely seen a dog loved as much as Caspian,” he told me gently. But that’s no credit to us. Caspian was the kind of dog that little children wrote letters to and perfect strangers were smitten by. He had a weakness for whole sticks of butter stolen from the countertop and a human-like cock of his head when he was trying to make out one of the several hundred words in his mental inventory. My best friends wept when they heard Caspian was sick, and when he died, one dear soul spent a couple of weeks trying to bring herself to break the news to her nine year-old daughter.

When we came home that afternoon to a thunderously quiet house, we sat in the silence and counted off the things that Caspian had taught us in his living and dying: enthusiastic inhabitance of the present moment; unfettered enjoyment of life; courage in suffering. Philip said gently that maybe someday I would be able to write about it. But in the weeks after Caspian died, I could hardly speak in coherent sentences, much less write them. My journal from that time looks like psychological chicken scratch. The one clear, strong comfort was our shared conviction that Caspian is. If there’s a bone of theological contention that leaves me cold, it’s the argument of whether animals will be in heaven. No mere sentimental crutch, my doctrinal position on the matter is simple if not a little incredulous: Why the heck not? It’s one of those questions upon which Scripture is notoriously silent, but I see absolutely no reason to interpret silence in this case as “no.” All I know of the character of God speaks to the contrary: if there’s one thing in the infinite universe this quaking heart of mine doesn’t fear, it’s the possibility of imagining God better than He is.

“I wonder if the spirits of all the pussy folk and doggy folk I’ve loved will meet me with purrs and yaps of pleasure at the pearly gates,” L. M. Montgomery’s whimsical heroine Pat Gardiner ponders. But dear “Grandpa George” MacDonald takes a firmer stance: “I know of no reason why I should not look for the animals to rise again…If the Father will raise his children, why should he not also raise those whom he has taught his little ones to love? Love is the one bond of the universe, the heart of God, the life of his children: if animals can be loved, they are loveable; if they can love, they are yet more plainly loveable: love is eternal; how then should its object perish?”

We knew we’d been marked as dog lovers for life; Caspian had settled that question irrevocably. But in the first deadness of grief we declared we never wanted another dog.

Then we said maybe, in a hundred years or so.

Then we said it would have to be an Australian shepherd, just like Caspian.

And then, before either of us dreamed we were ready, a five-pound ball of downy blue merle pranced into our sadness and lit it all the colors of the rainbow. Suddenly, our mourning for one dog was not mutually exclusive with the sweet anticipation of another. The woman we got her from (a saint among dog breeders!) was so gentle with my fears of circumventing the grief process: she told me that when one of her dogs goes to a home where a beloved companion has recently been lost she believes they have a special calling to care for wounded hearts. I can vouch for that: when Philip and I met our wee lass for the first time, we handed our hearts over without question. This pup had a vocation on her pretty little head—it was as obvious as that seagull-shaped “V” on the bridge of her perfect little nose.

We named her Bonnie Blue (her mother’s name is Katie Scarlett, of course), and in the weeks since she’s come to live with us, a strong new joy has been swelling in my heart like the unblighted bulbs of early spring. Colors appear where once there was only the hard earth of sadness; hope flocks home, birdlike, one dove at a time. My words are coming back, as well, in this sudden thaw, and old ambition gleams out between patches of melting snow. All this from the advent of a puppy who’s not quite housebroken and nips holes in my favorite skirts and eats out of the litter box? Absolutely. That’s what love does—it kindles and warms and wakens. Love is a creative force: it always begets in some way or another. And this particular love is resurrecting gladness in my heart, reminding me that winter must give way at last to warmth and sunshine, in nature and in life. Who says dogs can’t be grace-bearers? We sat in the pasture the other day, Bonnie and I, and watched the sandhill cranes swirling overhead on a persistently northward course. “That means spring is coming, Bonnie-girl,” I told her, as she cocked her head at their far-off cries. “And you won’t believe how beautiful it’s going to be.”

I’ll spare the details of how absurd Philip and I have made ourselves with puppy-love the past six weeks. But I will say that we’ve remembered Caspian more tenderly than ever since Bonnie has come into our lives. Though each dog’s personality is unquestionably unique, it’s been sweet to see the similarities in the breed that have made us such devoted “Aussie people.” With the remembering, however, comes the ghost of old fears, the temptation to snatch and grab and worry. Menaces rise on every side so that I want to clutch Bonnie in my arms and sit down on the kitchen floor and cry. How easily I fret my joy away over improbable things! And yet, it’s love itself that arrests my panicked heart, soothing me back down into the quiet of Caspian’s best and most unforgettable gift to us: Fearlessness.

Love wildly! Love exuberantly! his doggie soul proclaimed in a thousand ways.

But—for Heaven’s sake—love without fear.


The Star Dipper

March 20th, 2014

I want to begin by saying a warm thank you for the outpouring of excitement and encouragement attendant upon the announcement of my book earlier this week. If it weren’t for all of you, I wouldn’t have had the courage to let it out into the world. Thank you for celebrating this happy milestone with me, and for sharing the journey. You really can’t know what it means. I am so grateful.

The following is an excerpt from a talk I gave at Hutchmoot last October, and I wanted to share it here as both a witness to you and a reminder to myself of how I’ve grown to see my calling as a writer. I know I’m entrusting it to kindred hearts in this place. Again, my friends–thank you.

Last August I was a slump. It had been one of the hardest seasons of my life, and I was living through the three remaining weeks of exile before my husband and I traveled to the coast, to an island that is my spiritual home if there ever was one. I was treading water, really. And in a total funk with my writing. Anyway, before we went I was sitting in the vet’s office with one of my dogs or cats—I can’t remember who now—and I pulled up Sarah Clarkson’s blog on my phone. (In case you didn’t know, Sarah Clarkson is one of my favorite people on the face of this earth) I started to read her latest post, a beautiful and heartfelt piece (of course!) written from Scotland where she’d journeyed on a writing trip. (Do read the piece—it’s called “Write the Rainbow.”) She was staying with this lovely, saintly, Goudge-like old woman, and while she was there, Sarah read the woman’s memoir, a chronicle of adventuresome devotion. One afternoon, in a tumult of inner questions, Sarah set off on a long walk. Remembering how Venetia (isn’t that a lovely name?) wrote in her book that, occasionally, when she really needed guidance, God had given her mental signposts in the way of pictures or images or stories, Sarah made bold to pray for the same thing: a picture of what she was to do for Him, of what her writing life looked like. In Sarah’s own words:

Instantly, I do mean instantly, a Millais painting came to my thought. It has long enchanted me for its vivid, startling image—that of a blind young girl sitting amidst a glory of a golden field with two rainbows like stairways to heaven behind her. Not a bit of it can she see. But in that painting, a small child sits next to the blind girl, peeking out from under her cloak, neck craned in awe at the glory, telling the blind one of all the beauty. And I knew in that image that my task, as a soul, but particularly as a writer, is to be that child.

Write the rainbow, God told her. Tell this broken world of things they cannot see…

I read that and my heart burned with kindred longings. But I was also mad. Sarah was having all the adventures and, besides, she’s a better writer, so, of course, God would give her a noble charge like that! But the notion of God speaking in pictures lingered, and I made up my mind to pray about it just as soon as we got back to the coast and I had my mind and heart still again.

Accordingly, I survived the intervening weeks. And then, miraculously, we were there again on our island. One morning—I think it was the first, I was so eager—I got up quite early and went for a solitary walk along the marsh. I optimistically took my little notebook, on the off chance that I “got something.” And away I sauntered, under the summer trees, into the golden stillness and warmth of a quiet August morning. When I got to the farthest bench on the path, I sat down and looked up into the live oaks above my head.

“All right, God,” I said. “I read about how You spoke to Sarah, how You gave her a picture of what it is You want her to do. You gave her an image of her writing that was unmistakable and it was very precious to her.” Silence for a moment as I gathered courage. “I’d like to ask that You would do the same for me. I’d like a picture, please—I’d like an image of what You want to do with my writing, of what my work looks like, if anything.” More silence, and in a kind of frantic despair, I whispered, “I mean, maybe You love Sarah more than You love me—I mean, I would, if I were You—”

At that moment—I am not kidding—I was interrupted by such a gust of wind that my mouth literally dropped open. It came out of nowhere and roared through the tree over my head, sending leaves skittering from the branches in frightened little shivers. It was not so much angry as chiding—I felt reproved by it, and in the instant that it subsided, the cicadas, which had been maintaining a low, steady hum (so low and steady, in fact, as not to be noticeable) suddenly raised their pitch, and with it, their volume to a high, insistent whine, for all the world as though they, too, were protesting my petulance. It was almost deafening for a moment or two.

After it subsided, I sat in a chastened quiet.

“I’d like a picture, please,” I murmured, humbled.

Nothing came. My mind was a jumble of naught. I knew that Philip was waiting for me for breakfast, so up I got, trying not to feel discouraged. God does not always answer, of course, and when He doesn’t . . .

As I walked along back to the hotel, smiling intentionally at the beauty around me, clutching my little notebook tightly, a picture flickered into my mind: wavered, faded, materialized. And then it faded again, as I dismissed it with a smirk. Nothing more than a picture from one of my childhood books. One of my favorites, in fact, but obviously so firmly entrenched in my memory that my brain, hunting feverishly, had found it without effort. Oh well. God doesn’t have to speak to me the way He speaks to Sarah and to the saintly Scottish lady . . .

It never really occurred to me to wonder why that image, out of literally billions that must inhabit my brain. Especially when I had not seen it, or so much as thought of it in years. I can be kind of dumb that way, I guess. At any rate, a couple of weeks later I was sitting at my desk, grinding out my Hutchmoot talks—at great pain and effort, I might add. I was feeling like such a fake, a failure, a poser, a fraud . . . and I just laid my head down on my desk in complete and utter defeat.

“I just can’t do this, Lord,” I told Him. “I’m not one of these brilliant souls and I don’t know why I’m speaking at Hutchmoot and I don’t even know why I’m on The Rabbit Room…”

That kind of thing. And as I moaned and mullygrubbed, that same picture from the island morning came back into my mind. As at an audible charge, I immediately got up and went downstairs to the bookcase. I knew right where it was: The Tasha Tudor Bedtime Book, one of my all-time favorites as a little girl. I turned to the well-known page with a trembling heart (and trembling hand), and stared at the illustration of “The Star Dipper.” It was just as I remembered it: the little cottage, the girl and her mother gazing up into the night sky, the corgi at their feet—and above them in the warm blue, the radiant formation of the Big Dipper. I read the story again with tears in my eyes.

The tale goes that a little girl lives with her mother in a cottage at the edge of the wood. It has been a long, hot summer, and her mother is ill. Her mother sends her to the well to draw her up a dipper of water because she is so parched, but when the little girl endeavors to do this, she discovers that the well is dry. Undaunted, she sets out with her dipper into the dark night, certain of finding a hidden spring she knows of in the wood, the waters of which run cool and clear. Off she goes—but it is a dark night and the way is very difficult. Much more difficult than she had anticipated. It is so difficult that she fears again and again she has lost her way. The branches tear at her face and her dress, and the stones cut her feet. She is near despair, but the thought of her mother and her great thirst drives her onwards. At last she comes out into a little clearing and there it is: the Hidden Spring. With joy she fills her tin dipper with the crystal water, thinking what healing it will be to her mother. Immediately, she proceeds to return the way whence she came, but somehow it’s not quite as dark. The lowly dipper glows with a faint light, just enough to guide her way. As she goes, she encounters an old man, bent with years. He begs a drink of her from her dipper, the night is so hot and the springs are all dry. Quickly reasoning that there is enough for her dear mother and enough for the poor old gentleman, the girl lowers her dipper that the man might have a drink. The water is so pure and cold that he is revived at once, and thanks her with blessings. Resuming her passage through the wood, the little girl notices that there is even more light than before. “Could it be that the moon has risen?” she wonders. But, no—it is the light of her dipper, no longer tin, but shining silver in the dark night. Next she encounters a little dog, so tired and weary it can hardly beg, its tongue hanging out of its mouth for thirst. Without a word or a hesitation, the girl kneels and allows the dog to lap from her dipper, wherein she is thanked accordingly, as only doggies can do (and, to surmise from the illustration, he follows her home, which makes my heart glad, of course!). As she once more resumes her homeward journey, the little girl is amazed at the brightness shed across her path, for her dipper, no longer silver, has turned to a brilliant gold that lights her way. When she reaches her own cottage, she rushes in to her mother’s bedside and holds the golden dipper to her lips. The mother drinks with grateful alacrity, and the water is so cool, so refreshing and healing, that she feels well at once. The little girl sets the dipper on the table while she tells her mother of her adventures, but as she does, a kaleidoscope of light and color begins to flash about the room, like the sparkle of gems, and, suddenly, the once humble dipper flies out the window and shoots up into the night sky, no longer an earthly dipper at all, but a heavenly one, made of diamonds, so that all who saw it would remember the little girl’s hard passage through the dark wood and the loving gift she found there, bestowed with such generosity to all she met.

Before I was done with the story, I knew what God was saying to me. I knew that He wanted me to write and keep writing. And I knew what He wanted me to do with my writing, in one of the clearest, tenderest moments of insight I have ever had:

Fight your way through the Dark Wood. Find the Hidden Spring. And bring back the Sacred Water you find there for the good of all.

Find the Hidden Spring.

Since that time, the image of the Hidden Spring has given me courage again and again to just keep doing this thing—to make it my sacred charge and pilgrimage, whether a living soul validates it or not. This work is not of me—this great Thirst is not mine to quench. That doesn’t mean that the Dark Wood is not terrifying at times. But that gives me strength, even when I’m plunging through it—to know that the Spring is there and that it flows with the original Creative Love that set the stars in the heavens and calls them each by name. It’s a deep, bone-level call, at once rigorous and refreshing. I did not make the Spring; I do not fill it with water. But it’s there. And Love will show me the way to it. I can count on that. Mine is only to do as I’ve been charged and leave the matter to God.

"Find the Hidden Spring"

Announcing: Poesy, a nosegay of prose

March 17th, 2014

In creating, the only hard thing is to begin; a grass-blade's no easier to make than an oak. ~ James Russel Lowell

Oh my goodness.

I am so excited about what I have to share today that I hardly know where to begin. This news has been over five years in the making. And now that it’s finally time to let it out into the world, I’m tripping over my own enthusiasm.

It all began in the summer of 2008. I’d hit a terrible slump with my writing and would sit at my computer for hours at a time, typing insipid sentences and immediately erasing them. I felt like I had lost my identity as a writer. Worse than that—I felt like I had never been a writer in the first place. Who was I kidding? Who did I think I was? And who on earth would ever want to read the kind of books I wanted to write, anyway?

It went on and on, for weeks. I remember one sweltering afternoon in particular, demoralized by the heat without and the wordlessness within, wherein I threw myself on the sofa in a full pout of despair. “I must’ve missed it,” I half-prayed. “For some reason I thought I was a writer. But I’m not. I don’t have Story running through my veins. Or if I ever did, I’ve lost it.”

I had an appointment that day, so I heaved myself up off of the couch and went downstairs in a black cloud of melancholy. It felt like a death, and my heart was cold with the sorrow of it as I stood before the mirror brushing my hair. Not a writer after all, the words scorched my weary mind. And then, something magical happened. Even as I stared into those despondent eyes before me, a running commentary wakened in my head. It was a voice describing how I was feeling: the awful deadness of my discouragement, the misery of my misunderstanding—in vivid words and in third person.

I threw down my brush and took the stairs two at a time, flinging open my laptop before I’d even pulled out my desk chair. I spilled the description onto the screen, writing as fast as my abysmal typing skills would permit. And as the words grew under my flying fingers, a character emerged. (I was late to that appointment, by the way.) By the end of the next week, I had a story. Another followed, and another. I greeted the process with curiosity, seeing these people suddenly in my head and then following them around over a dozen or so pages just to find out what would happen to them.

The whole thing was so fun it just couldn’t be real writing. Where was the agony, the hair-pulling, the angst? (These jolly friends save their presence for the editing process, as I later learned all too well.) But I couldn’t help myself. I just kept pursuing these little whiffs and signposts of Story—some buoyancy within seemed to carry me along—and, before I knew it, I had the makings of a book. The vision grew with the collection, and when I reached ten stories I knew, instinctively, that I was done.

I wrote this little book purely for joy, out of the most idealistic sensibilities of my heart. There were times I would actually have to get up from my desk and walk off the trembly feelings of happiness that made my hands shake and my heart skip a beat as I wrote. It’s not best-seller material. It’s not “marketable” or “mainstream.” It has no message, save that Love Exists and Beauty Matters, and it has no agenda. If anything, it’s unapologetically old-fashioned, very much in the style of my literary heroine, Lucy Maud Montgomery. It was the book I wanted to write five years ago, and once I got out of the way of myself and quit trying to write what I felt was expected of me, out it came.

I knew that a book as gently outdated as mine would require special treatment, and as my imagination had already quite run away with me, I gave in and gave it its head. It was out of this untrammeled flight of fancy that the dream of Low Door Press emerged: whole runs of books made entirely by hand. I longed to create something that was simply as beautiful as I could make it, start to finish, and, somehow, this book I had secretly (and accidentally) written seemed the perfect candidate. Kilmeny of the Orchard was the first grand experiment (I’m still dazed and delighted at the way she was welcomed by all of you!), and all the while I’ve been working away behind the scenes to bring my own book into the world in accordance with the dreams I first dreamed for her.

Let the beauty we love be what we do; there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground. ~Rumi

All these years I’ve been editing compulsively, revising, rewriting, undoing and redoing. Kind friends have looked her over and given me feedback, and a year ago I hired a keen-eyed and kindred-spirited editor to give my girl a final spit and polish. I finished the typesetting last summer during my online sabbatical and two weeks ago, after one final (agonizing!) export to .pdf, I took my little book to the printers. I was so excited (and a little flustered) that I left the house without any lipstick, and by the time I walked out of the shop with a proof in my hand and an order irrevocably underway, I felt rather dizzy. To be honest, I was totally unprepared for the shining excitement that snatched me up and has held me ever since. My book—my very first book—was being printed! After all the agonizing and obsessing, the scrutinizing of fonts and the millions of exports, after learning to use Illustrator (and learning to use InDesign all over again as I’d forgotten everything I knew)—this dream was becoming a reality!

Now that my book is in my hands and the binding is underway, I wanted to include all of you, dear readers, in the final stages of this project. Besides, I just couldn’t keep the secret to myself any longer! I though it would be fun to keep you posed periodically, in words and images, on the status of this second title in the Low Door Press library. I’m not ready to announce a release date as of yet (there are too many imponderables attendant upon the hand-binding process), but my hope is to have the first run ready by mid-autumn.

And so, without further ado, it is my great pleasure to announce:

Poesy is a collection of love stories, some contemporary, some slightly historical, all with an old-fashioned sensibility. It is a Valentine, of sorts, a personal declaration of sentiment and a bouquet of gentle thoughts.

I am employing a somewhat different method of bookbinding on this particular project: whereas Kilmeny was essentially case bound (the text block created separately and the cases inked and debossed on an antique engraver’s press before assembly), Poesy will be created in the even older style of hollow-backed binding. This will allow for slightly more flexibility in the spine and a chance to try my hand at individually gilt-stamping the titles as the final step in the process. My amazing sister has once again leant her talents to this project and created four stunningly beautiful original illustrations, in addition to the full-color cover art. She has taken the pictures I had in my head when I was writing and made them a reality to grace the pages of my book. I’m absolutely stunned over how lovely they are. Such a perfect complement to the pale green book cloth I’ve decided upon.

So that is my surprise, gentle readers. I would be so honored if you would accompany me on the final stages of this journey. I promise to keep you updated on Poesy’s debut.

Spring Tonic

March 13th, 2014

"It is always safe to dream of spring..." ~L.M. Montgomery

Slipping quietly into this little space on a brisk-but-brilliant almost-spring day to say a warm word of thanks to those of you dear souls (and you know who you are) who have spoken such kind words of late over my long absence from Lanier’s Books. Truthfully, it wasn’t until I received a profoundly gracious email from a longtime reader, gently wondering if I was drifting away from this place and the fellowship of words we have shared here, that I realized just how long it had been since I had posted anything. I was shocked at my own silence, and hastened to assure her–as I am anxious to assure you, dear readers–that, no, I have no intention of abandoning my site or my shop. Quite the contrary, appearances notwithstanding!

In all honesty, I haven’t shared here for the simple reason that I’ve had nothing worth sharing. Not that these winter days have been lacking in beauty, or that life has lost the ruby-hearted lustre that so kindles my soul. Far from it! But it has been a long winter, literally and figuratively, and, in some lights, a hard one. Like our dear friend, Henrietta, I’ve felt rather turned on my head by too much lately, so that most (if not all) that is worthwhile in my mind has toppled out like spare change from an upended wallet. There have been shining joys which I am keen to share with you, but the simple fact is that in all my exhaustion of heart and mind, I haven’t had two words to rub together. I’ve laughingly called it a case of writerly laryngitis, but it’s more than that. I have been writing, in faith that cohesion might someday bubble to the surface. And I have been working happily away in my bookshop, polishing up some details on a surprise that I absolutely cannot wait to unveil.

And in the meantime I’ve been rounding out this quiet hibernation with an unprecedented regimen of self-care. Like Henrietta, I know that unless I tend my dreams–unless I live, as Macrina Wiederkehr put it, in a way that is kind to my own soul–I’ll have nothing to give to the world, no work that is “love made visible.”And that, of course, is the Dream at the heart of my dreams.

I want you to know that I have read and re-read your comments and emails and messages, and they have invigorated me like a good, old-fashioned spring tonic. I never cease to be amazed and humbled by the warmth of the people kind enough to frequent this site. You give me courage, dear readers, and I am overwhelmingly grateful.

And about that surprise…I know I’ve been alluding to it for some time now, to the exhaustion of all suspense and excitement…

But this time I mean it.

Check back on Monday for an announcement of the latest publication from Low Door Press!

God keep you, my friends, and thank you, again.

Under the Mercy,

~L

Lo, How a Rose

December 2nd, 2013

I was mad at God.

It was the 30th of November, a date by which I’ve traditionally completed all of my Christmas shopping, planned my holiday meals, decked half the halls and basically thrown myself heart and soul into the preparations for the season I love best. It’s not that I’m so organized: it’s just that where Christmas is concerned I can scarcely contain my joy. The excitement starts percolating somewhere around about Halloween, and it’s all I can do to hold myself back until after Thanksgiving from draping tinsel over the mirrors and crowning every picture in the house with a branch of holly. I love Christmas so much that I cry when we put the tree up and I cry when we take the tree down—and that never a day before Epiphany. I get so tender over the season, in fact, that the very angle of the light on a late December afternoon is enough to bring tears to my eyes.

But that year I just wasn’t up to it. I was worn out with sorrow, with protracted waiting and exhausted hopes, crushed under a disappointment that felt like a physical blow. Not exactly a recipe for a happy Christmas. And it was all God’s fault.

I told Him so, standing at my window, looking out over a diamond-shot dawn that tangled itself among the velvety arms of my favorite cedar tree and suffused the rising mists with a pale golden light. Christmas, with all its gilted joys and tender associations, would only make things worse.

“I can hardly bear the thought that my Christmas rose has such a thorn.”

I whispered it to the windowpane, and then I immediately thought how silly that was, for the manger itself leads to the Cross and it was a crown of thorns that drew drops of blood as red as holly berries. I knew all that, had sung about it for years, had written little pieces acknowledging the sorrow brooding over that stable in Bethlehem. I had even speculated about the angels’ perspective on the matter, posing that they “may well have bent low in wonder, but could it be that their eyes were dimmed with tears?”

I knew that sorrow was a part of joy, as inextricable as the Cross is from the Resurrection, and that any earthly hurt can make us keen to that loving heartbreak of God. The sorrow had just never been so tangible, so odiously unavoidable. And my thorn had such an ugly name: Barrenness.

It takes a good, stout Old Testament word to express the arid disgrace of it: the Bible is painfully good at looking things in the eye and calling them what they are, and those first faithful ones certainly knew a desert when they saw one. What better depiction of the wasting dearth of disappointed hopes than a weary land hopeless for rain? For a long time I shied away from that word. I held it at arm’s length and buoyed up my spirits with a sanguine hope for ‘next year’. But on that late November morning, options dwindled and hopes all but extinguished, I stared into its lifeless expanse and realized with a horror that seemed to drain all the life out of me that this was the wilderness into which Jesus was asking me to follow Him. It was the last place on earth I wanted to go. I wanted the desert of waiting to give way to a desire fulfilled. I wanted Him to be glorified, yes, but I wanted Him to do it by giving me what I longed for.

The fact was, He had let me down. Early in the newborn days of the previous January He had whispered a word to me, a potent assurance that seared itself on my mind in an unmistakable way. He had comforted my storm-tossed heart with a passage from Isaiah that seemed to echo down through the centuries with a shout of triumphant hope and explode right into the very midst of the quiet room in which I sat reading with burning eyes.

The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them;

ran my trusty old King James,

and the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose.

The words were a cooling shower, steaming and hissing on the dry ground of my desert place of longing, and I sensed the silent movement of God’s voice like a breeze among the brittle grasses:

It’s alright to be sad about that. Now—let Me make something beautiful.

“Way to go, God,” I wanted to say. “You’re really going to be glorified this time.” And what better way to show Himself strong than to make possible that which had proved impossible? To utter a resounding “Yes!” where circumstances had said such an inexorable, “No.” I could hardly wait to see what He was going to do.

And here I was almost a year later, disillusioned and disenchanted, in one of the darkest places I have ever known in my whole life. Nothing had changed—nothing but a heartbreaking flare of medical hope that had ended in ashes and a desire that had grown too heavy to bear. I felt bereft; bereaved and utterly forgotten, with no one to blame but the Author of the universe.

But there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years when it comes to playing the blame game with God: He can take it. “Reviling is also a kind of praise,” says the poet; “pour out your grievances,” says the psalmist. I have to believe that God prefers even insolence to apathy, feigned or otherwise—or worse yet, a pious stoicism. Complaint, at least, is personal; murmuring is abstract, which is why I think God must hate it so: it destroys intimacy. Astonishingly, when I’ve been most angry and honest with Him, His benevolence ends up appearing most poignantly to me. And in the first tender days of that particular Advent season, in the gathering glory of this great Giving and Coming, a bright-winged shadow seemed to gather and fall over me and a breath of wind stirred through the barrens of my wilderness.

There is beauty in this place, He began to tell me again and again, in precious and particular ways, and I clung to that word like a drowning swimmer. If there was beauty here, I had to see it, for without its promise in my life I knew I would perish inwardly, even if it took a lifetime to do it. If there was no beauty here, there was no beauty anywhere—the thought chilled me to the marrow of my soul. But God’s mercy is new every morning, and visits us in a thousand unforeseen ways. The words of a favorite carol bore fresh grace to me the first time I heard it that year:

And so through every time of life, to him who acts with reason,

The beauty of all things doth appear.

All things! Even this wasting patch of earth? Even this bewilderment of pain and desire? Even the hard-crusted face of suffering and surrender? Yes, yes and yes! came the answer on all sides, as if the very rocks and stones of my desert cried out in praise of God’s harmony of things. Almost against my will, I went back and looked at that passage in Isaiah again—and I saw something I had never seen before. Those verses speak not of exchange, but of transformation. The desert in this case is not merely traversed for a season and then gratefully left behind—it is remade. Renamed; plowed and sown and domesticated. This from the hand of the God who “calls things that are not as though they were” and who makes new things out of nothingness.

The wilderness shall blossom as the rose.

“Allright, Lord,” I said. “Have at it.”

And He did. On the first Sunday in that December we attended the Advent Procession at the cathedral downtown. The service is an ancient one, steeped in monastic tradition, wherein the choir travels around the church, singing at all the points of the compass, symbolizing the passage from darkness into light that our Lord’s Advent fulfills. I am such a visual person that it is very meaningful to me, with all the anticipation building to the final glorious Latin hymn sung on the steps leading up to the altar. The most enlightening moment, however, was in the middle of the service, in the midst of a song I had never heard before. From the back of the cathedral came the exultant springing of music and words, buoyant as birdflight:

People, look east! The time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Guest, is on the way.

An overwhelming longing seized me, deeper and more wordless than even my longing for a child, and I sat there in the pew with tears standing in my eyes and my heart nearly pounding out of my chest. A year ago I had imagined myself welcoming the baby we had so long prayed for by this time, but in that moment of blinding, choking joy, there in the holy hush of a cathedral with angels’ voices filling the air, the Lord sang His own longing over me:

Welcome Me! Prepare for Me! Incarnate your love in practical ways—love your loved ones for My sake! Open wide your heart and your home and receive Me more joyfully than ever before!

It was both a gift and a charge; a glad challenge my tired heart suddenly—miraculously—roused to meet. I felt as though strong wings were lifting me from beneath; as though a cup of joy had been held to my lips and a gentle voice commanded me to drink my fill. As though the wilderness itself was breaking into song all around me.

Furrows, be glad! Though earth is bare,
One more seed is planted there:
Give up your strength the seed to nourish,
That in course the flower may flourish.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Rose, is on the way.

That moment threw a quiet mantle of wonder over the rest of the season, tingeing every act with a significance I had never known. A few days before Christmas I was up on a ladder wiring greenery onto a chandelier in anticipation of the loved ones that were soon coming, humming Lo, How a Rose under my breath (anything that had anything to do with roses seemed inherent with meaning that year), when suddenly I stepped down, clippers in hand, under the thrall of a singularly beautiful thought. I went straight to the phone, dialed the wholesale florist I use, and promptly ordered a huge box of blood red roses. When my husband came in with them later I literally danced around the table as he set the box down and lifted off the lid. They were breathtaking: an utter luxuriance of crimson and velvet, couched in a bed of tissue-soft wrappings. But ever so much more than that: they were to me both an image and an offering; an honor to the Author of this glad revel we were keeping in His name. Those roses were my personal statement of faith; my version of perfume, lavished before the coming King.

I nursed them through two harrowingly warmer-than-usual nights and one downright balmy day, but at the end of it I had the joy of spreading out on the porch with my floral supplies and clipping and wiring to my heart’s delight. I made a big wreath of ivy to hang in our bedroom window and trimmed it with snowy white hypericum berries and sprigs of cedar flanking the perfect blooms. I tucked roses among the greenery over pictures and into the big arrangement of holly and pine in my grandmother’s white porcelain compote. I laid them in beds of cedar along the mantle and I worked them into the wreath on the front door. And for the dining room, I fashioned them in rings upon pedestals of oasis and set pineapples—that time-honored symbol of hospitality—down in the center. I can’t remember when I’ve had such fun decorating, or been so pleased with the results. And this in a year when I wasn’t sure I was equal to Christmas at all.

On Christmas Eve our home was bursting at the seams with family and friends-like-family. After the blessing, I read the beloved old greeting penned by Fra Giovanni in 1513 which has become a standard in our home. But never had the words seemed so appropriate:

There is glory and beauty in the darkness, could we but see! And to see, we have only to look.

I could vouch for that a hundred times over—but as I looked around the circle of beloved faces, I knew that every single one of them could testify to it as well. These were no untouched souls—many of them so much older and wiser than me by far—but faithful men and women of God who had taken His hand and wandered through deserts of their own. And every single one of them had come up with Him rejoicing—regardless of the circumstances. They had seen a light in that dark place that the world could not offer or explain away. And they had never been the same.

The rooms rang with laughter and the snapping of fires and sounds of feasting and good fellowship that day. But loveliest of all to me were the sounds of the children, running through the hall, squealing in their games in the backyard. They lined up for the old-fashioned treat of oranges with soft peppermint stick ‘straws’ (now an institution, even among the teenagers) and they pulled English crackers in the den by the tree. One three year-old lass required my help to pull hers and toppled over backward in a cloud white batiste and astonishment when it gave way—I have to say it might just have been the most beautiful sight of the day in a day full of beauty.

I will never forget that Christmas, or the fundamental shift that happened down inside of me. How it literally changed everything and how the wilderness flowered before my incredulous eyes. My desire had not abated a whit; if anything, it was heartier and haler than ever. But the wild anger had gone, and in its place there bloomed a fresh-flowered hope that all would be well: not because life is perfect or every desire has been accomplished, but because He is. Because He came among us, and He’s still here when Christmas is over. Thou meetest him that rejoiceth, and worketh righteousness: In the years since that has been the standard I have borne in all my preparations for Christmas; a torch flaming in the darkness and a voice in the wilderness. And He does meet us, in our most broken places, year after year, with the marvel of His advent. And He does work wonders—miracles of quiet righteousness—even if they are so hidden in the depths of our hearts only He can see them. But wonders, no less.

Wondrous as a heart breaking with longing and joy at the same time; inexplicable as a barren place blossoming with roses.

Ah—with God, nothing shall be impossible.

originally published on the Art House America blog, November 2012.

Thanksgiving Eve

November 27th, 2013

Wednesdays are my favorite days, and this is my favorite Wednesday of the year.

I absolutely love the anticipation that this day means. Since early this morning I’ve been chopping herbs and pecans, grating orange rind (that lovely little burst of spray that escapes every time the zester perforates the orange is like a tiny sacrament of the season to me), measuring out brown sugar and vanilla and poring over endearingly splattered recipes. I’ve tended the fire on the kitchen hearth and I’ve leaned over a stock pot simmering with the well-beloved cranberry conserve I’ve made every year since I was seventeen. Snow flurries (Snow! In November!) whirl in keen gusts outside the window, making that fire all the more friendly, and, like an epiphany, sudden sunlight ebbs and flows over my world in a wave of pale gold at a break in the clouds. I hear the wild and far off exultation of the sandhill cranes voyaging south, but this day I’ve no inclination to dream of the sunny lands they sing of. Sweeter to my soul is the bleating of my own sheep in the barnyard and the light snoring of this cat who takes my fireside chair every time I pop up to stir a pot or respond to a timer. My heart is homing with such a quiet joy today, a gathering-up of myself and all I believe about beauty and truth and goodness: namely, that all of this work and preparation and expectation is a banner of hope and a statement of faith. As I said elsewhere, things matter, everything matters, because Love has come and Redemption tarries not.


It will be a different Thanksgiving this year. We will gather with our family to celebrate on Sunday, and tomorrow we’ll enjoy a quiet day at home, just us. I am preparing a formal dinner for Philip and it has been the delight of my heart to dream over it and shop for it and make what preparations I can in advance. I keep teasing him that it’s my version of Babette’s Feast (one of the best, most sacrificially beautiful films I have ever seen), but I have had fun. Don’t tell Philip, but I’m making, among other things, an honest-to-goodness Beef Wellington, a butternut squash “crumble” that has been driving me mad with gorgeous aromas, and for dessert, a lovely (and heretofore untested) sabayon made with roasted chestnuts and Muscat.

I’m embracing “different” this year. My heart has heard God’s whisper to open my hands and to accept my limitations, which are two sides of the same coin, and I am earnestly endeavoring to heed that pluck at my sleeve. For the truth is, while I would not change places with anyone on the face of this earth, there are a few things in my life I would change right now, if I could. God, in such greater tenderness and wisdom, sees otherwise, and I bow before that unfathomable Love. But the heart that is alive bears its wounds, as I am sure every single one of you could attest in personal and poignant ways. And if there is one thing I have learned, it’s that sorrow and joy don’t usually visit us separately, but hand in hand. “I’ll take the heights and the depths,” I told a dear friend and mentor on the phone this morning, “because that is where the joy is.” I don’t have to understand how the mystical transaction takes place–I can only swear that it does.

And when Sorrow has stayed its piece, Joy remains. That, in my opinion, is something to celebrate.

I want you to know that as I sit by my fire on this Thanksgiving Eve and cusp of the Bright Season, I’m raising a teacup to all of you kind souls out there who connect with my words and give them a place in your hearts. I am truly and deeply grateful for you.

May the blessing of light be on you—
light without and light within.
May the blessed sunlight shine on you
and warm your heart
till it glows like a great peat fire.

Celtic Blessing

New Books Today!

October 16th, 2013

illustration by Edward Ardizzone from Sarah and Simon and No Red Paint

I’m happy to announce that there are new books in The Shop today! I’ve added some real favorites, including several rare titles by Frances Hodgson Burnett and collectible volumes by Grace Richmond. I’ve also got two titles by Elizabeth Von Arnim, The Enchanted April and a beautiful copy of Elizabeth and Her German Garden. And, as always, there are the dear, familiar friends: D.E. Stevenson, Bess Streeter Aldrich, Temple Bailey, Louisa May Alcott… Do have a look at that lovely 1903 Jo’s Boys, complete with original dust jacket!

Happy browsing…and remember to sort by “Date Added” to see the new books.

illustration by Edward Ardizzone from The Little Bookroom

Sonnet I.

October 8th, 2013

I.

For Philip

Cicadas sing at midday, metal-bright
Murmur hymning indolence to earth,
While painted ladies dart in fevered flight,
Knowing of all most poignantly life’s worth.

Fond sunlight coaxes salt scent from marrow
Of warm-breasted marsh, and drows’d palms breeze-wake
With green rapier-rattle. An arrow
Pierces yet—Summer to her flight betakes.

A silver ribbon sparks athwart the blue
As homing cranes outdistance creeping cold—
The sight wrings cry from heart of mine, “I do
Not want death! I do not want to grow old!”

But, ah, my love, while you are you, and I
Am I, Love’s high summer shall never die.

Rambles

October 3rd, 2013

Well. Hello there.

I hardly know where to begin. After forty-plus days of retreat, I feel like my soul has had a thorough airing and scrubbing. Like I’ve been at once standing on a high and lonely mountaintop in a bracing wind and tucked securely in the cleft of a rock, shadowed by an Almighty hand. I have been caught between the essential bliss of solitude (wine to my introverted soul) and the supreme discomfort of having to face my own inadequacies. I have both reveled in my ideals and squirmed under my shortcomings. I have tried to be as intentional as possible in these weeks of silence, to ask a thousand questions and be content with the answers—and the lack thereof. I have folded my wings and brooded over a nest of honest contemplation, and it has been seriously one of the sweetest, clearest, sanest seasons of my life. I have had time to think, time to scrutinize what I am doing with my days—and why. Aristotle said that the unexamined life is not worth living. I would argue that the unexamined life is less living than mere survival. For the past couple of years, I’ve felt like I was in survival mode, suffering, as I’ve mentioned before, under the trauma of “too much.” It’s not theatrical for me to say that many of the expectations of modern life are traumatic to my psyche—it’s just an acknowledgement of my limitations, and a candid celebration of the fact that there is a way for me to live that is not antagonistic to the divine tailoring of my personality. Quite the contrary. I have come to see that being kind to my own soul is not only valid—it’s essential to my walk with Christ. Losing my place of peace means losing the place where I hear His voice, plain and simple.

Last of the summer grapes--when I came by next morning, the birds had polished them off.

But if these weeks have been quiet, they have also been crammed with things I love, and for that I feel most blessed. Since we’ve last met, I’ve gone to sailing school and gotten my Basic Keelboat Certification (along with Philip)—a long-held dream. I’ve been scribbling like mad—wrote myself into a lovely case of tendonitis, in fact. And…I’ve finished the typesetting on the next book to be published by Low Door Press! Details will be forthcoming, I promise. But for now I’m just simmering a bit in the happiness of that huge task completed.

I’ve also been gallivanting. Last month my sister and I stole away to a little beach house for a week, revisiting old memories and making new ones in a place that is beloved to us both. It has been years since we’ve gone away together like that—and never, if you’ll believe it, just the two of us. It was painfully sweet to have her all to myself for so many days. The whole thing put me in mind of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s visit from her own sister in the midst of writing Gift from the Sea–gift in itself to her solitude. Liz and I hardly drew breath from the moment we set off together in my little roadster, Happiness Runs—we took the back roads, weaving through all those sleepy South Georgia towns, revisiting scenes Liz hasn’t laid eyes on in over a decade. And then, the sweet island life, of sunsets and dawns, beach picnics and bike rides and sundresses. I’m so grateful that we were able to seize that time (somewhat impulsively!) and make it happen. I think we’ve instituted a yearly tradition…

Liz capturing the dawn in oils--I don't know how she does it.

And I’ve come again to my Island, my golden land that shimmers, marsh-skirted, like a dream on a blue sea. This place is truly my spiritual home if ever there was one: I speak less, but hear God more within these cloistered green shades. I’ve also come to realize the deep significance of warmth to my body and my soul. I can never seem to get enough of it, seeking that kind sun at every turn, drawing myself up to a heat that seems to seep down into my bones. I’m storing it up for winter’s long reign—though it hardly seems possible that there is such a thing as winter in this sunny land. But even here I sense the change stirring: there’s a tender new clarity to the angle of the light, and my blackbirds, which charm the summer air with sweetness, are noticeably absent. There is goldenrod fringing the beach path, and in the woods the beautyberries spark a magenta flame beneath the trees.

The morning commute

I’ve been writing here, too—working much on my novel. And this week, at Philip’s challenge, I wrote a sonnet. It was my first attempt at the form, and I was very intimidated. (I confided to him that I have always had this unspoken conviction that I wouldn’t really know how to write poetry until I tackled sonnets.) But this one has been growing in me for some time—since before my jaunt to the sea with my sister, I think.

I confess, it was hard going, but quietly exhilarating: all that word-wrestling in the peaceful grip of a beloved scene. I sat in the sun (of course) by the sea wall and hardly knew the passage of time. One morning, the pelicans were out in full force, crowding the dock like a gang of hunched old sailors before spilling out over the water in an amazing undulation of grace. There were gulls, too, and a kingfisher, dipping and fluttering over the marsh towards the trees. And I listened and listened, and looked with all my soul, endeavoring to describe in iambic pentameter just that clear sound of wind stirring in the palms overhead. I do so love the discipline of the sonnet form, the essential selectiveness of metaphor and image—no room for superfluity. I can’t help but feel that a healthy dose of sonnet-writing would improve my writing overall…

(I finished it today, in a last dizzy tumble of words. Perhaps I will share it, if I can work up the nerve.)

But, in the meantime, I just want to say that I hope this little ramble finds you all well and glad, and that as we move into this ambered season, may the balance of your year’s harvest grow bright before your eyes.

39

July 27th, 2013

I have always been a five year-old about birthdays. I love them, and I get very excited about celebrating the day that God in His mercy chose to give me life. The most ordinary things seem tinged with magic, and I pray I will never grow out of that. But I am also very awed by the shining, unwritten gift of a new year. There is something a little untame about the enormous possibility that stretches before me, and a deep unction rises to take responsibility for my choices in the spinning round of days to come—to name my year with purpose and intention and love. To mark each age with significance and deep attention to the subtle ways in which God is bringing me into my own, as a woman and as His child.

So, while all birthdays are important to me, this one seems especially so. Today, I enter the final year of my thirties. I’ve joked with Philip about how I’m turning 39 for the first time, but, in all seriousness, I’m not bothered a bit about growing older—I love the increasing freedom that comes with the passing of years, and the gradual shedding of non-essentials—be it the shedding of ideas or possessions or insecurities. My thirties have been a remarkable decade. I have had adventures and opportunities my 29 year-old self could not have imagined. It’s also been a quietly turbulent decade, in the good way that all true soul-growth is turbulent. I have been stretched in ways that sometimes seemed past endurance, and I have found God more loving, more tender, more unreasonably patient with me than I ever would have let myself hope He would be. My joys, too, have deepened into this widening space within, so that I begin to feel that all the tugging and pulling and broadening—which can be so uncomfortable in the moment—has only been God’s secret design of making room for even more joy.

And so, as I enter into this last year of my thirties, I want to pay close attention. To listen to the story my own life is telling me. To pause long enough to see a pattern and notice how divinely suited it is to my personality. I cannot help feeling that I am on the threshold of something very important, and I don’t want to miss it. One thing that has been growing on me steadily of late is the thought that I want to live this last year of my thirties the way I really wish I’d lived all of my thirties: namely, actively believing the things that God has said about me. Believing that God loves me as wildly and extravagantly and unconditionally as He does. Believing the names He has given me. Believing that acts of love, howsoever small, are undying. Believing that it’s allright to say ‘no’ to things my heart is saying ‘no’ to and to live in a way that, as Macrina Wiederkehr so beautifully put it, is kind to my own soul.

I have mentioned here before, to great empathy from my fellow introverts, a passage from Elizabeth Goudge’s A City of Bells, which I first encountered with a rush of tears and a burst of camaraderie, both for Goudge herself (whom I know the words describe) as well as her petite heroine:

Henrietta, at heart a contemplative person, enjoyed alarums and excursions for a short while only. For her a background of quiet was essential to happiness. It had been fun to stay with Felicity, to be petted and spoiled by all her friends…to have lovely things to eat and to go to the zoo whenever she liked, but it had completely upset her equilibrium and she felt as though she had been turned upside down so that everything that was worthwhile in her mind fell out. She, like everyone else, had to find out by experience in what mode of life she could best adjust herself to the twin facts of her own personality and the moment of time in which destiny had planted it, and she was lucky perhaps that she found out so early…

…she found herself listening only to the lovely silence and it seemed to her that in it she came right way up again and her dreams, that had deserted her in London, came flocking back, so that with joy she flung open the doors of her mind and welcomed them in. Never again, she vowed, would she live a noisy life that killed her dreams. They were her reason for living, the only thing that she had to give to the world, and she must live in the way that suited them best.

I am learning—again, and yet, as never before—how crucial it is for me to live in the way that suits my dreams, not only for my own equilibrium, but because this is the place in which I find God. When life gets out of hand—whether by excitement or stress or illness or over-commitment—two things happen in me, immediately and insidiously: I stop writing, and I stop dwelling in the peace of the love of God. You would think I’d see it coming, it’s happened so many times before. But it always takes me off guard and pulls the rug out from under my soul. I get muddled so easily, yanked off center by the varying forces at work in our age, and find myself wondering where my dreams went. Or, worse yet, wondering if they ever were.

It’s because of this tendency towards muddle (“Beware of muddle!” warns Mr. Emerson so poignantly in A Room With a View. “Though life is very glorious, it is difficult.”) that I am taking the passage into 39 very seriously. I am taking heart to look more keenly into the things that make me alive—and to guard them with my life. I am willing to own, perhaps as never before, that what may not be “too much” for another person is justly “too much” for me. I am learning that I am much more of a sailboat than a steel trawler, excruciatingly (exasperatingly?) sensitive to the breezes and currents of life, but that when my sails catch the wind of the love of God, my work becomes seemingly effortless. Becomes, in the words of Kahlil Gibran, “love made visible.”

In order to catch that wind, however, to know that divine conveyance, I must be out on the open seas with Him, riding wild waves of that Spirit which “blows where it listeth…,” in a solitude that can be terrifying at times.

In recent weeks, I’ve felt a desire kindling that seems nothing short of a dare:

What if, it whispers, you do indeed give the last year of your thirties to an unprecedented level of solitude with Him, for the love of God? Of communion and intimacy and wonder? What if you venture into the contemplative life you’ve dreamed of, a life that is a little more cloistered and a lot more loving? What if you actually took the time to recalibrate the compass of your life?

What if you took a Sabbath Year?

For me, a Sabbath Year means an intentional rest from the things that pull me off center, chief of which is my expectations of myself. It means laying aside, if only temporarily, some of the things I love in order that I may tend my soul more carefully. I’ve already made my little list of “offerings”, which, candidly, I’m excited about. (Though, equally candid, I’m tempted to say with each emerging item, “Ah, Lord! That too?”) But for as long as I can remember, I have not only admired, but panted after the monastic ideal: the dream of a cloistered heart that retreats from the world in order to love the world. More than that, even, a heart that values silence and solitude with God over all the “showier” aspects of religious life. A heart that is not afraid to love God extravagantly, whether other people see it or not.

I have been drawn towards this ideal for years and years, encountering its recognizable essence in the people I most admire with a gasping sense of validation and joy. And I have been drawn, likewise, in these foothills of my forties, into the conviction I need to segue into this Sabbath Year with the great Christian tradition of a 40-Day Fast. This whole idea has been growing on me since last week, when one of my best friends sent me an email that said, in all simplicity, “Go dormant, Lanier.”

All day yesterday I felt the longing growing within me, a living thing. A thing I am both exhilarated by and terrified of: the longing for the Great Silence. The specific longing to retreat for a time from the internet world and fully inhabit the smaller world of a bounded life . I realize, even as I’m naming it, that I’ve wanted to do this for a very long time, but I’ve lacked the courage. Suddenly, perhaps out of my great need, the courage is there, and the knowledge that the world is not waiting on tenterhooks for the next words to fall from my fingers and splash (or drip) out into the internet. It’s okay to be silent for a while.

And so, kind friends, beginning Monday, July 29th, I am going quiet on the internet. For forty days, no email, no Facebook, no Twitter (which I actually have no idea how to use anyway). No browsing about on Ruche and accidentally buying things. No obsessing over Instagram pictures. No drinking from the great, flowing fountain of words and ideas that make the internet such a miracle to me. I need to step back into silence and heal from the trauma of “too much” for a while. I want to use this time to pray for clarity and wisdom in the choices my husband and I are making with our lives, to remember what it means again to be a child of God. To not only hear His voice, but know what questions to ask. In short, to find my bearings once more.

And, that done, to put out to sea with Him.

I dearly appreciate all of you, and the ways in which you have contributed to my journey. Hobbit-like, I wish I could give every one of you a present for my birthday. But know that I am sending my great love out into the great world of this crazy internet, and that I am looking forward to connecting once more in a few weeks.

(I’d cherish your prayers, if you think about it.)

*Note: the Bookshop at Lanier’s Books will be closed from Monday, July 29 until Sunday, September 8. I will re-open on Monday, September 9—and hopefully with new inventory! Blessings, friends…