House of Mourning

October 5th, 2015

"This is not my landscape now, where I find myself without you. Oh, I never knew you from the sun." ~Karen Peris

My father died two months ago.

Apart from a few stilted sentences on Facebook, I haven’t known how to frame those words in this space. I haven’t known how to frame any words, really. My journal swells with a stream-of-consciousness torrent—explosions of anguish, swirling eddies of joy. I’ve stitched together a ragged story of things I never want to forget and things I so violently wish were not true.

But, for all that, I haven’t known what to say. I stand before this awful, stone-faced reality called death, and words are the most futile things in the world, like butterflies hovering around a grinding millstone.

A friend asked gently over tea the other day if I didn’t feel like a tsunami had hit my life, smashing and then washing away everything I once thought permanent, immutable. Safe.

Yes, yes that’s exactly how I feel, though it took her intentional and empathic imagination to name it.

I feel orphaned. At 41 years old, I feel like a child cast adrift on an unfriendly sea. I feel so bewilderingly vulnerable, so disoriented. It’s the strangest thing: all through Daddy’s illness I was mamma-bear motherly, as protective of him as if he were my child. But the minute he was gone—and I mean the very minute—all that collapsed. I was four years old, and I just wanted my Daddy. It was as if the past few years and all the trauma they held had never been. I wasn’t prepared for that—for the onslaught of memory and frailty and fear, nor for the blinding mercy that so instantly gave him back to me as he had always been. I welcomed it, opened my arms as it were to that searing flood. But it nearly swept me away.

Our culture is so inoculated against grief. We’re assured in whispers that it will get better, don’t worry, just give it time. But everything in me rebels against such a “hush-hush” approach. I haven’t the least doubt that it will get better—I do not grieve as those who have no hope, and this story is not over. The only thing I’m afraid of is not doing the thing properly; of not grieving thoroughly, in a holy, healthy way. It’s the last thing I can do for Daddy this side of heaven. And it’s where God is meeting me with treasures of darkness undreamt of in my innocence of grief. I don’t want to miss anything, excruciating as it is.

I wouldn’t go back to that time before my induction into this league of loss—I wouldn’t be again the girl I was before this sorrow broke me, shining its piercing light on my naïveté. I carry that girl in my heart—she will always be a part of me, and I will always need her hope, her wonder, her ideals. Yes.

But I need this acquaintance with sorrow, too. I need my heart joined to the great sorrow of the human race, the rage against death, the longing for all this sadness to come untrue.

I’ve feared for my faith the past three years. I’ve rebelled against and then dully accepted the silence of God. I’ve gotten used to it, in a way.

And then grief comes and rips the scab off the wound, demolishes with its tidal wave of finality every last defense with which we’ve learned to protect ourselves. We’re bleeding and breathless—and still the silence remains.

Only the grieving know this, and do no fear it.

Only on this side of death—the death of one of the greatest forces in my life—do I know just how utterly unshakable are my beliefs about life and death.

Only now do I know just how deathless life and love really are.

Only now do I dare to hope just how close God really is to the brokenhearted.

I don’t always feel it. The seeming of His absence throughout this ordeal has been horrifying at times. And yet—Something has caught me every single time I started to sink; Someone has held me when I couldn’t hold on. When I walked into the room moments after Daddy died (another heartbreak I can hardly speak of—I wasn’t there), an electric current of certainty seized my heart.

He’s not here, sang something deep inside me, something deeper than belief, more relentless than confidence. Everything—everything you have heard and believed about life and redemption and eternity is absolutely true. For the love of God, it’s all true. He’s not here—and yet he continues to be!

“Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity, and so very absent a help in time of trouble?” C.S. Lewis asks in A Grief Observed.

Of course, the same thing happened to Jesus Himself. The Man of Sorrows is intimately acquainted with that particular grief.

But perhaps a larger question for me is—Why do I question Him for bringing grief into my life, but never question with equal wonder and awe just why He would bless me so much?

I had—have—and extraordinary Daddy. I’ve never had a problem with the Fatherhood of God because my earthly father represented Him so well. I can hardly bear the thought of the rest of my life without him, but I’ve got a lifetime’s well of love to draw from. A friend who lost his dad years ago comforted me with the fact that the power of Daddy’s influence over my life would never be lost.

“I promise you,” he said, “you’re only going to see that influence grow and mature over the years. You’ve only begun to see the ways his love has shaped you.”

(He also told me to quit worrying that I would ever forget the music of Daddy’s laughter, or the sound of his voice. “It’s with you for life,” he said. “And it won’t always hurt.”)

Now I understand why the writer of Ecclesiastes says a sad face is good for the heart: I doubt there’s a more clarifying force in all the world than death. Clarity hurts. But I want to press in hard before it fades even the tiniest bit, before life tries to catch me in its current again. There is beauty and joy on the other side of loss. If I didn’t believe that, I would go mad. But I cannot believe that any of this is meaningless. The very life inside me will not permit it, nor the Spirit within my heart crying, “Abba! Father!”

I’ve tried to be very intentional about my grieving rituals, in a Lenten-like spirit exploring this loss and all the ways I want to live in the light of Daddy’s life and death. The legacy he left behind is simply staggering; the people whose lives he touched apparently limitless. The night of the visitation, the line at the funeral home went down the hall, out the door and around the block. And every single person there had a story to tell of how his joy had infected them with courage or hope or redemption.

That kind of life is not lived by accident.

And it’s not lived in vain.

I’d love to recount all the ways that Jesus has been real to us in His people these days. All the ways He has caught me in the dark and told me He is here. Perhaps someday I will be able to. But for now, I want to assure you, friends, that He’s doing it. There’s this daily punch-in-the-gut realization that nothing is going to change the fact that my Daddy died of a catastrophic illness at a young age—and with it comes the desperate longing to go back undo the tragedy of it all. But I believe, in ways I cannot understand or articulate, that God is doing just that. That His mercies are retroactively redemptive.

“Son,” he said, “ye cannot in your present state understand eternity…That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.” C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

I also want to take this opportunity to extend my most whole-hearted thankfulness to those of you who have reached out with such extraordinary kindness and sympathy. It hurts me that I haven’t been able to respond to everyone as I’ve longed to in this season—time and words have been in such short supply for so long. But I want you to know what your kindness has always meant in this place, and especially now. Your notes, emails, messages—all have been like rain in a parched land. Please know if I haven’t replied to your words, I most certainly have not forgotten them.

Under the Mercy,


All things new

April 24th, 2015

Sunset, Good Friday

I’m sorry to have been so silent, friends.

For the first three months of this year, it was a silence born of utter extremity. I wanted to write, but there simply wasn’t time. Between the rigors of an intensely challenging class load, and the demands, the exhaustion, the decisions, the red tape and the long heartbreak of a terminally ill loved one, I didn’t seem to have a second that was not spoken for. It was a dark winter in many ways—lit, to be sure, with the grace of an unfailing Presence, but I’ll be honest: there were times when I didn’t know how I was going to make it. We’ve seen some pretty bleak hours of late, and Philip and I have exchanged more than one long look of quiet, weary despair. But I want to affirm something here, both for your encouragement and for my own remembrance: every single time I was more-than-tempted to lash out at God with an angry “where are You?”—every single time the waters started to close over my head—a strong arm reached out to grab me. I mean every single time. It might be a new, albeit tender, light cast on a well-loved Psalm, or the unlooked-for arrival of the red-winged blackbirds filling my winter world with song. The darker sonnets of G.M. Hopkins are forever endeared to me after this long stint in the shadow, and the music of Andrew Peterson and Eric Peters is more meaningful than ever. But here’s the thing: nine times out of ten, that rescuing hand was the grip of a friend. Phone calls, notes, grace-laden words, breathtaking acts of kindness—these are the ways Jesus has held me (and Philip, too) of late.

I remember one night in particular that just seems to epitomize the kind of instinctive, intuitive caring I’m talking about. We were hosting a dinner party back in February that I was too exhausted to attend, much less preside over. It was one of those days I just wanted to hide, I was hurting so badly. I was feeling many things: sorrow, weariness, anger over Daddy’s suffering and the complexity of the situation and the brokenness of the world. But mostly, I was feeling abandoned. The darkness felt permanent—like a long Lent, with no Easter in sight. Calmly, deliberately, I set the table and prepared my portion of the evening’s repast, all the while feeling like my whole body was made of lead. When the doorbell started to ring things got better, of course. Soon the rooms were snapping with firelight and conversation, and I remembered anew what good medicine good friends always are.

And then, my friend Katie walked in.

I will never forget the sight of her, standing there in my dimly lit hall, wrapped in her grandmother’s fur, a knowing smile on her face. She was dressed with characteristic Hepburn-esque style. And her arms were full of yellow roses.

“We’ve all had a long winter,” she said, gazing around at the other ladies who had clustered upon her arrival. “I just want all of you to know that spring will come. And that I’m praying for you.”

She then proceeded to pass out a ribbon-tied bouquet to each of us, handing mine over with a meaningful look. My thanks tangled in my throat and tears burned my eyes. But what I couldn’t articulate to her that night was that those roses were a tangible symbol of hope. A whisper from God that He loves me, that He knows how much I am hurting, that He cares, in ways I can’t begin to imagine.

And you, dear readers and friends, have been a part of that caring. I may not have managed to personally respond to each of your astonishingly generous notes, emails or comments, but I want you to know with all my heart what they have meant to me. I think we can’t imagine, until we’re hemmed in with grief, just how life-giving a kind word can be. So thank you—thank you for being a part of the way God is loving me these days.

Looking back, March was a physical impossibility. But, in the grace of God, I completed all my coursework (though I didn’t turn in one paper this term that wasn’t finished at 3am on the morning it was due!), and managed to sneak up to Nashville towards the end of the month to speak at a conference I was deeply honored to be a part of. Most importantly, however, after weeks and weeks of fear, uncertainty and excruciating decisions, we reached a resting place with my dad’s care plan that’s given us tremendous peace. God has provided for him in truly amazing and tender ways, and while I’d do anything to undo this cruel disease and make him well again, there’s no doubt that goodness and mercy are attending him through this dark valley. There’s nothing—absolutely nothing—natural about death: I’ve never seen that so clearly as now. But I’ve also never been so astonished at the particularity of the love of God. Jesus never asks us to cross a river He hasn’t forded or to face a foe He hasn’t already defeated.

(“I feel beaten,” I texted a dear friend back in mid-March. “You’re not beaten,” she answered right back. “Just bruised.”)

And so, in the midst of deep sorrow, April came in with its old flush of hope and promise. On Easter morning we greeted the dawn with a clutch of close friends, gathered in the west pasture on blankets and quilts, our mittened hands wrapped around steaming cups of coffee. Our hymns and prayers mingled with a riotous choir of birdsong and rooster crowing and peacock screams, as if the fowl of the earth and sky had all beat us to the glorious secret and were bursting their hearts to tell the world that He is risen, indeed. An enormous opal moon went down behind us as the sunrise cracked the rim of the east, and I watched the golden tide spill from the treetops with an answering warmth rising within me: ageless as spring; indomitable as the sap charging through the mighty oaks and walnuts overhead. It’s true, friends—He does make all things new: every Easter, every morning, every moment of this bewildering, heartbreaking, beautiful life. We’re walking a stony path, to be sure, but even when this chapter is finished, the Story won’t be over. And, in the meantime, I can’t help but notice that the verges of this way are starred with violets, and that the hedges on either side are alive with a music too jubilant for human speech.

After our little service we had breakfast on the patio: hot cross buns and cheese Danishes and mimosas and lots of candy—because if Easter isn’t a reason for a party, I don’t know what is!

Since Easter, I’ve been in something of recovery mode: between terms, and breathing a little easier on Daddy’s account, I’ve taken my days more gently, sitting out on the front porch for long stretches at a time, just looking at this miracle of a green and golden world overarched with kindly blue. I’ve tried to write, in this breath of calm, but the words simply would not come—my soul was still too tired. But after a few weeks of keeping reasonable hours, of sunshine and April rains and flowering trees (what miracle is that!—I wish I could sprout flowers at the tips of my fingers the way trees do!), the racing thoughts have stilled, the ‘panting feverishness’ has finally broken, and I feel like I’m picking up a bit of myself that I left behind nine months ago in all the haste of anxiety and emergency. There’s a new sweetness in the air, young from the dawn of time, and it’s stirring some of the ‘dearest freshness deep down things’ in my heart. I’m almost afraid to admit it’s happening, as we still have such a long road ahead. But I woke up this morning with an old and long-loved rush of enthusiasm, a fresh spring of creative energy and joy. I lamented in prayer that my words were not what I wanted them to be—not yet, not ever. Write anyway, the Lord urged.

And so, I’ve slipped into this space once more, to let you know that we’re allright, that, while the thorn is pressing in hard, we have the hope of a fresh crop of mercies with each day that dawns. And when we sit on the porch in the evenings, watching the sheep crop the tender grass or the peacocks put on a show of Arabian splendor, our conversation is laced with contentment, and we lift our wine or tea or San Pellegrino with thanksgiving.

Before I go, a bit of news:

Last weekend, we rescued my darling little kitchen garden from two years of neglect: within an afternoon, it went from a tangle of weeds to a proper little plot, planted with tomatoes, squash, zucchini and peppers. More delectables going in this weekend, but it’s really astonishing how much that one act of reclamation has leant its energy to our other endeavors. It really was one of the most redemptive things we could have done: every time I peer from the kitchen window, I’m infused with the reminder of the beauty and meaning snatched from ruin and decay that’s always at work in this world and in our lives—like a great secret running through our veins and urging life upwards through the soil of the earth. Come July, I’m sure I’ll be a little hot and bothered over slugs and squash vine borers—but that’s allright. There’s grace for all—even bugs and weeds.

Garden before.

Garden after.

Trinity term commences next week, and I’m eager to dive back into my Oxford studies. I cannot even begin to express how much I am loving my classes—in the midst of such a challenging season, it’s been a gift to have to compose heroic couplets, or read the Brontes, or write papers on the poetry of Wordsworth. I still can’t believe I get to do this—I never open my books without a whispered, “thank You.” It’s really just a tremendous experience. I love the way my heart begins to pound when I’ve encountered a new idea or a concept unfurls its potential before me. Really quite intoxicating.

A word on Poesy—I assure you, she has not been abandoned. Circumstances have rather re-routed her passage into the world, but I’m back on track with an updated release date in mind. Thank you all so much for your excitement over this project, and your questions: I’ll keep you posted.

And, finally, I just have to include the happy news that we have added a new member to our clan of Friendly Beasts: Flora Foxbane, the Great Pyrenees pup came to live with us back in January, and she has brought with her a world of merriment and altogether endearing doggie hijinks. She’s a year old now—we got her from a rescue organization, and we were her third home, not including the kind foster parents who took care of her until we came on the scene. To look at her, I absolutely cannot believe that anyone could give her up—she’s the goofiest, greatest-hearted girl you can imagine, and, when she stands still long enough, she’ll melt your heart with that soulful Pyr stare of hers. We’re completely in love, and Bonnie is beside herself with this new playmate. Diana the Brave is teaching her all she needs to know about being a proper livestock guardian (I’ve never in my life seen a dog with the work ethic of Di), and while the sheep are still a little leery, the goats have accepted her as one of their own. We absolutely love being a two-Pyr farm again.

That’s all for now, friends. Thank you, again, for your kind presence, both here and in your words, prayers and thoughts. I’m overwhelmed. God bless you all.

"What is all this juice and all this joy? A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning In Eden garden." ~G.M. Hopkins, 'Spring

In These 12 Days…

January 3rd, 2015

I cried a lot this Christmas.

This Christmas—like this year—has been beautiful in so many ways. But it’s also been hard. Hard as iron, at times. Hard in a way no one can prepare you for.

Back in the fall, my little book club re-read an old favorite, Anne’s House of Dreams. I love all of the Anne books, but as a wife, that one has become my very favorite. Nevertheless, it had been years since any of us had revisited that story, and the most poignant element of all to us (without giving away too much, I hope!) was that Anne wasn’t able to connect in real friendship with her intriguing but emotionally distant neighbor, Leslie, until she herself had suffered greatly. It wasn’t until Anne had walked the valley of the shadow that the hurting Leslie was able to trust her, not only with her sorrow, but with her joy as well.

“Why did no one tell us how hard life was?” I asked, looking around the circle of trusted friends.

“We wouldn’t have believed them,” one of them replied. “You have to learn it for yourself.”

She’s right. Life is beautiful, full of dreams and ideals and joys that threaten to make your heart pound clean out of you. But—as Anne learned, as we’re all learning in our own ways—life is hard.

And when the hardness of life invades the tenderness of Christmas, well, then, that’s very hard, indeed.

You have all been so kind with your notes and comments during Advent and Christmastide, and while I really feel I have nothing whatever worthwhile to say, I also feel that I owe it to you, dear readers, to slip in here and let you know I’m still around. To let you know that I appreciate you and your words and the fact that you come back here to see if I’ve posted anything new. That’s really so astonishing to me that after ten years (!) of writing in this space I still can’t get my mind around it. But I’m thankful—thankful for you; thankful that we’ve been able to connect here. It’s precious to me.

This Christmas I had the blessing of leaning deep into the longing and waiting of Advent. Advent is, should be, a season of Longing, of pressing into the sadness that all is not as it should be; that hopes remain unfulfilled and prayers remain unanswered; that another year on this broken old earth finds it more broken than ever.

Early in December, I was feeling rather self-conscious about my sadness—even though it’s entirely justified: my father is terminally ill, and every day holds a fresh heartbreak. I can hardly write about it here, the pain is too raw, too private, though I’ve filled reams of paper journals over the past few months.

But I felt the Lord calling me to honor that sadness. To make myself even more at home with the unresolved tension of loss and grief and hope deferred. To welcome my nearly unbearable longing as a friend and guide that would draw my heart towards an irresistible, undeniable Light.

For the truth is, even if God did answer all my prayers and give me everything I’ve asked Him for, the longing would still be there—because, like all the generations before me, it’s Jesus I’m longing for.

What gift, then, to have such a poignant image of that reality to stab my soul awake this Advent season. How precious to be caught up into that great Longing for the Savior’s appearing that’s broken the hearts of the faithful with sorrow and joy for centuries. The joy is real—but the sorrow is inseparable from it.

Even so, come Lord Jesus!

The shadow cast by Daddy’s illness leant a somber air to our traditions and observances and beloved rituals this year. Some things had to be laid aside by necessity amidst all the tangle of responsibility and uncertainty and care. And some things, in spite of all, we held to more firmly than ever. I told Philip that if there was one thing I wanted this Christmas, it was to have my home stuffed to capacity with people I love. I wanted to cook for them and care for them; create beauty for them; celebrate with them the glorious reality that no amount of earthly sadness can ever undo: namely, that He came, He’s coming again, and every tear will be wiped away.

I wanted to send people to bed in firelit rooms with steaming mugs of peppermint tea. I wanted that bright ring of children’s faces around my table on Christmas Eve—the nieces and nephews and children of friends with whom we’ve celebrated for years. I wanted noisemakers and paper hats on Christmas Day, and silly cracker mottoes and singing. I wanted to affirm that all this hoopla really matters. It seemed so discordant with grief—but after the waiting, the silence, the darkened way of Advent, I wanted to celebrate.

And we did. I had my wish—the Lord honored my desire. I made beds; I set tables; I crammed the freezer with casseroles and cookies. Philip laid the fires and helped me stuff dozens of Christmas crackers. In between trips to the nursing home (in which Bonnie Blue was always a most eager participant!) we listened to favorite records and watched a few favorite movies and read our Advent prayers.

And I cried. A lot.

And that’s okay. I’m learning to be okay with that. I’m learning in a way I never have before that life is HARD.

But it’s also good, as God is good. On Christmas night, the tears that burned my eyes had their source in joy. We were all gathered in the parlor, Philip and me and our houseguests and the darling family of eight and their lovely friend we’d invited to spend Christmas with us, singing everything from “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” (which, I admit, I had to sight-read, as I had no idea how it even went!) to “Away in a Manger”. The hymnals were pulled from their bottom shelf on the bookcase and passed around and requests were taken. It was one of those rare moments in life when you knew how good it all was—knew it down to the marrow of your soul. But it was during “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” that my cup (and nearly my eyes) overflowed: its bright triumph has always been especially dear to me, but the words almost seemed to catch fire and light up the room as we belted them out together. And in the midst of it all, our littlest guest, a three year-old lass in a party frock with bare feet, marched around the room, tooting the horn from her Christmas cracker with ear-splitting abandon, almost in time to the music. Such unadulterated joy it nearly broke my heart.

There’s heartache awaiting that little one as sure as it’s come to the rest of us. It’s called being human and alive on this dear old hurting earth of ours. But, being the smallest present, she represented something in our midst: something fresh and pure and utterly, utterly REAL. So lately come from God herself, she was the closest of all of us to the mystery we were celebrating. Whether she could ever comprehend it or not, her innocent antics woke an elemental gladness in me that the darkness absolutely cannot extinguish. That Light is just too faithful.

Philip said I was crazy when he saw me putting those horns in the childrens’ crackers. But, in a way, they made my Christmas.

After the 25th, I’ve retreated (as much as I can right now) into the rest and the wonder of these blessed 12 Days. And here, it’s the 10th one already. It’s a deliciously misty and gloomy one, just right for a quiet afternoon by the fire, keeping and pondering what this holiday has meant. My Christmas tree gleams bravely against the darkening afternoon, and in another moment here, I’ll light my Advent wreath (now graced with red candles for Christmastide). I don’t feel that I’ve kept Christmas this year, so much as it’s kept me—which is a very beautiful thing. The older we get, the more loss we have under our belts, the more complicated our tenderest times become. But as Sarah Bessey so wisely and bravely said in this breathtaking essay,

“The joy born out of suffering and longing is more beautiful for its very complexity.

We greeted the New Year a few days ago, not as we’d planned, but with tears and question marks. I told Philip I was a little afraid to open the door to 2015—I couldn’t be sure it wouldn’t break my heart even more thoroughly than 2014 had.

But then I remembered: sorrow’s not the only thing that breaks our hearts.

Sorrow remains for a night—but joy comes in the morning.

I felt God’s challenge stirring in my tired, battered heart: the one—the only—thing He’s asking of me in the face of so many unknowns: dare to believe He loves me as much as He says He does. Dare to take the joy He’s holding out to me.

Dare to believe that JOY really is my word for this New Year.

Challenge accepted.

Happy New Year, dear ones. My prayer for you all on this 10th Day of Christmas is that for you and all who are dear to you, the light breaks and the shadows flee.

Much love,


A Month by the Sea: Summer’s End

October 2nd, 2014

When I was about nineteen, I went tent camping with my family in the Smoky Mountains. It was summertime, the mountains were a cool, hushed oasis of mystery and shadow, and everyone else had a grand time—but I’m going to go ahead and confess that I could hardly wait to get back to civilization. I didn’t like washing dishes in cold water and sleeping on the ground and worrying about bears on the way to the bathhouse. I got sick, and the smoke from the campfire made me cough. One night there was a thunderstorm that threatened to blow my tent away and soaked my sleeping bag, and in between lightning flashes, I came as close to making a vow with God as I possibly could…

If You’ll just let me get home in one piece…if You’ll just let this week be over

But I’m so glad I didn’t commit to anything that night. I feel quite certain that God only knew how much I would adore camping in my future. I would have laughed that night, shivering in my tent from cold and fear, to think I would sign up for such a thing again, much less actually suggest it. Among the delightful jokes of my life is the fact that the Airstream was my idea—and that I was more surprised than anyone! My sister reminded me before we embarked on this latest sojourn that Airstream camping is not necessarily what some people would consider camping proper.

“It’s glamping,” she avowed.

She’s right, of course. There is something rather glamorous about a hot shower, a soft nest of a bed, a tiny gas oven, a refrigerator and a little deep freezer for Bonnie Blue’s raw food—in the middle of the woods. I celebrated the daily ritual of afternoon tea served properly in my pale blue “Charm” teacups with even more appreciation than I often do at home (those cups were the very first items I bought for the Airstream, before we’d even found it!), seldom failing to take my tea out of doors under the awning. And it was lovely to get dressed up occasionally and run down to the lovely old hotel on the island for dinner or cocktails on the verandah. I was hugely amused one afternoon on a previous trip: I’d been wrestling mightily with a stubborn sonnet out on the verandah, and the sudden completion in a last tumble of words seemed cause for celebration. Our favorite bartender was working that day, so I went in to order a glass of wine, intending to savor it reflectively back out on the porch. As I was waiting, however, I couldn’t help overhearing the conversation of another couple at the bar, deploring the new hotel policy of half-price cocktails on Thursday nights, which evidently brings in a lot of non-hotel patrons.

“Ugh,” said the woman, with cool disdain. “Watch out for the RV set.”

The bartender and I exchanged a glance of flickering mirth. A friend and a hotel institution, he’s served us just as graciously over the years whether we were “RV set” or registered guests. But it absolutely amazes me, the misconceptions we all cherish towards those whose ideas of fun are different than our own. I can honestly say that the people I’ve met in the camping culture are some of the most sincerely kind and gracious souls I’ve ever encountered.

So, it’s been a blessed and beautiful month by the sea. We’ve worked hard and we’ve rested well in this place so dear to both of us. My soul has been restored in a profound way, and I have a new sense of clarity for the coming days. What’s more, a new season has unfolded: my Oxford studies commenced during our stay, and I spent my days divided between writing like the wind and navigating my way around the virtual learning environment. I actually attended my live, online University Induction one lovely sunny morning on the hotel verandah. The significance was not lost on me that just four months ago I’d had my application interview via Skype in the Victorian-era boardroom on the other side of the wall behind me, another kind hotel friend having secured it for me for that purpose. It means the world to me that this place has been home to such important experiences in my life. I’m still rather dazed by it all.

Our days have been full, and each one gemmed with their own sweet memories of fun: there was the night Philip suggested on a whim that we cover our dinner plates with foil for an impromptu beach picnic—the spaghetti was none the worse for the wear after a bouncing jaunt in the picnic basket on the back of my bike, and Philip, Bonnie and I all relished the privilege of a quick swim in the ocean before supper. Then there was the afternoon we hatched our unprecedented and extreme money-saving scheme for the boat fund during a walk along the fishing pier—we named it “The Land-locked Mariners Relief Fund,” and toasted it that night with cheap champagne. And, of course, the night we sauntered down to the marina to admire the sailboats and hopefully talk shop with a willing salt or two: no sooner had we stepped onto the dock than we were assailed by a small dog gang, the leader of which appeared to be a fiery little Yorkie whose name and reputation were known to everyone in the marina. “Miss Pearl” guided us back to her owner, who was hosting a dock party for the “live-aboards,” and, in keeping with all my hopes, they invited us to join them. We took our seats amid a bunch of strangers and their dogs (Bonnie Blue was a perfect lady, I might add—we were very proud of her) and starting flinging questions right and left like the eager novices that we are. One couple in their eighties had lived aboard their 41-foot junk for eight years, and, perhaps noticing my wistful glances at the paneled warmth of the lamp-lit cabin glimpsed from the open companionway, the wife invited me to come aboard and have a look around. We’ve heard of the famed friendliness of the sailing community, and that night confirmed it!

But best of all was the dinner dance down at the hotel this past Sunday night. I had a pretty vintage frock I’d brought just for the occasion, and Philip donned his seersucker suit for the last time, and we spent an enchanted evening dancing to all of our favorite standards and chatting with old friends—friends whose friendship we owe to the decade we’ve spent enjoying this dance at any chance we get. It’s so rare to find a really, truly, old-fashioned dance in this degenerate age!

And what about my novel? On Tuesday, the last day of September, I still had three scenes to go. I rode my bike down to the hotel that morning to sit on the verandah with a tall English Breakfast tea. And I wrote. And I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. Around three, I closed my laptop and stood up rather shakily. The ride back to the Airstream was a tumble of emotions—tenderness that we were leaving the next day being uppermost, I’m afraid. I exploded into the Airstream, where Philip and Bonnie were waiting for me.

“Well, did you finish?” he asked.

“I forgot to type The End,” I said. And promptly burst into tears.

It seems so strange to have come to the end of this draft at last. It was over two years ago on the beach of this island that I’d told Philip my idea in the first place. And now there’s an unwieldy and somewhat graceless sheaf of papers to show for it. Not at all what I want it to be, of course—not yet. But I have a frame in place; I know my characters better than I did when I started, and so many ideas and plot lines bubbled to the surface in the sheer mundane act of moving a pencil across paper or my fingers over a keyboard. I once heard Leif Enger say that “persistence is the landing strip of the Muse,” and I know there’ll be a lot more of that required of me in the coming days. For now I’m going to let it rest a bit–stew, percolate. But while I have no illusions of how hard it’s going to be, I’m very eager to get back to this work. I care about it so deeply.

Most people would say summer was over on Labor Day, or perhaps when the kids went back to school in August. But my summer ended last night as our Airstream lumbered back into the driveway. I got out to open the gate and I knew, in the cool, fragrant darkness, that autumn had come. The mistflowers were blooming along the front walk, and this morning there was no mistaking that tender new angle to the light.

I know I’ll settle in to the beauties of this dear season. But today I’m missing my island. I’m missing my golden marshes and my silver sands, my birds and trees and flowers and fragrances and the unique, sweet astonishment of being there.

Last week, Philip and I got into a playful argument over which artist did the best version of A la fin de l’été: Françoise Hardy or Brigitte Bardot. (I voted for Bardot; he went for Hardy.) But there’s one thing we agreed upon: we’ll remember this one forever.

(If you want to weigh in on the Bardot-Hardy debate, you can listen here:


I’d love to know what you think! ;) )

A Month by the Sea: Beauty’s Wound

September 26th, 2014

The other night after dinner, Philip and I took to our bikes for a starlit ride along the beach. The island here has so little light pollution, and as there was no moon, I was obliged to use the flashlight on my iPhone to see—much less navigate—the twisting path between palms and salt cedars that leads to the shore. I always forget just how dramatic a starry night actually is until I come to the ocean; there’s something about the combination of a fathomless sea heaving gently in the darkness and a midnight dome of uncountable stars that puts me in my place more effectively than anything else on earth. My soul is awed by God’s heavens and stilled by His waters—a process that’s as reliable as it is difficult to explain. The beach was deserted at that hour, and the lights from the neighboring island across the sound were painting the retreating tide with bold splashes of silver and gold. And overhead, all that wonder of inexhaustible space. I hopped off my bike and stared till I grew dizzy—the longer you looked, the more stars became visible. The Milky Way was a clear swath of silver dust, the night was gentle as only a night in late summer can be, and the windsong in our ears was an invitation to dance. It was all so beautiful I could hardly bear it.

“Why does it hurt?” I shouted to Philip above the wind and the tide.

It’s a question I’ve asked myself a million times—why does Beauty hail us with a stab? The sights, scents, sounds of this place are beloved to me since my youth; they greet me with the warm companionship of old friends. And yet, there’s a twinge of sorrow that accompanies the desperate gladness with which I immerse myself in these familiar shades: a strange sadness lurks beneath the sunshot glooms of the live oaks; a gentle pathos wavers in the wine-golden sunshine. Fleetingness is certainly a factor: knowing that another exile awaits on the other side of this blessed sojourn lends a poignancy to our days (I have to stop myself from ticking them off in my mind). But it’s more than that. More, also, than the tender associations with which this island is crowded for me. I’ve spent many of the very happiest hours of my life under its trees, along its beach, on this very sun-warmed veranda from which I write. This place keeps my times for me, holds my summers alive and well, refreshes me with the dew of my own youth every time I return. This is all part of the sweet pain, to be sure—but not nearly all.

I was talking with a very dear friend recently about the way Beauty works on us, and how the modern mind seems to regard it with a growing distrust.

“Beauty opens wounds,” she said, and I knew she was on to something.

Beauty tugs and pulls and points. And when someone reacts negatively to Beauty’s proddings, it probably means there’s some raw nerve that its arrows have reached, some unhealed place its rays have revealed. Beauty engages the realest, most vulnerable part of us—the part we like to keep hidden under appearances and sufficiencies and achievements. The part that’s most uniquely, exquisitely us. This hardnosed old world of ours can drive even the stoutest of hearts into hiding—but Beauty won’t have it. It goes after us, piercing our darkness with its indomitable light, wooing our souls back into Wonder and Youth and Hope. But it’s a painful process, especially when the cares of life conspire to keep us so occupied we hardly notice the hard crust of practicalities forming over our tenderest places. It hurts a bit to have that crust chipped away; Beauty must wound before it can heal.

I once heard a lecturer say that all real sickness, of body or mind, is, at its essential core, homesickness. I think there’s a lot of truth to that. We’re always looking for that “other country,” the place we remember in the oldest part of our souls where there was no such thing as tears or pain or death. And, with typical human ingenuity, we’re often looking in the all the wrong spots, in all the wrong sorts of ways. All the success and money and health in the world won’t buy us back that original innocence, that sweet naïveté of sorrow—yet, Beauty tells us, the story’s not over. There’s a redemption in the works of which all the loveliness in the world is token in pledge. Beauty is a path along which we catch a glimpse of the chimneystacks of home; it is a lamp in the window on a dark night, a song remembered from our infancy. Beauty sings what the youngest part of our souls already knows: this is only the beginning.

Every heart that has ever entered this world has been or will be broken, and this exile is at the heart of it. Everything that we know instinctively “ought not to be” only underscores our alien status. We’re like expats, startled into inarticulable emotion by some scent or sound or breath of wind that reminds us where we’ve come from. I suppose that’s why the physical sensations of sorrow and joy are so similar, even to the point of pain: they’re both drawing us back to the same place.

I’d scarcely realized what a protective crust had formed over my deepest sensibilities, but after a summer of very grownup cares, I’m learning to bare my soul to Beauty all over again. I’m remembering what it means to stagger under the splendor of sunlight on water, to bow my heart to a kingfisher in flight or the parable of a live oak cloaked in the grave clothes of Spanish moss. I greet God’s emissaries in the fragrance of the marsh grass and the wild, joy-cries of the gulls overhead. And when He stains His sea and sky with violet and salmon-pink from the rim of the world, I welcome the sweet wound of it all, knowing that these beauties but but house the real Treasure.

I read this sonnet to Philip on the beach last night–as usual, dear old Gerard Manely says it better than anyone:

Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Down in dim woods the diamond delves! the elves’-eyes!
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!
Wind-beat whitebeam! airy abeles set on a flare!
Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare!
Ah well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize.
Buy then! bid then! — What? — Prayer, patience, alms, vows.
Look, look: a May-mess, like on orchard boughs!
Look! March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows!
These are indeed the barn; withindoors house
The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.

G. M. Hopkins, The Starlight Night

Source: Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose (Penguin Classics, 1985)

The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature. ~Anne Frank

A Month by the Sea: Finding Solitude

September 16th, 2014

Sunday before last, I stood on the airstrip of this little island of ours and watched a single-engine prop plane take off and disappear into the clouds, feeling very much like a heroine in an old black-and-white movie—and suddenly very alone. For Philip was on that plane, a kind pilot friend having offered to spirit him back to the city for the work week, and I was facing the prospect of camping all by myself for six whole days. Not that I was adverse to the plan—it was one of the things that’s making this time by the sea a possibility, and I am grateful, not only to my husband, but to our friend, whose generosity both simplified our scheme and gave Philip a good, old-fashioned adventure. (“You’ve got to see the marshes from the air,” he keeps telling me. “You’ll never look at them the same way again after viewing them from 1000 feet.”) Nor was I necessarily opposed to the prospect of so many days of aloneness: Solitude and I are old friends, and here was certainly an opportunity to renew her acquaintance in an entirely new way. Nevertheless, it was hard to think of being here in this loved place without the one whom my soul loves, and as I stood there under a leaden sky, with the wind snapping my skirt against my legs, a funny little desolation crept over me. I listened until the plane was out of earshot, then I walked slowly back across the runway to my car. The Airstream seemed so empty, even with a nine-month old puppy in residence—if 24 feet of aluminum-sheathed trailer can echo, I swear they did that day. And so, I did what any rational female would do: I sat down on the sofa and had a little cry.

After that, I pulled myself together and made a Plan. I was resolved to demonstrate my love and thanks by having much to show for these days—I honestly cannot think of another time in my life when I’ve had absolutely nothing to do but write. Bonnie and I quickly established our little routine, which included, among other things, a nightly FaceTime chat with Philip (fun for me and wholesomely confusing for her!), as well as a morning hour in bed with coffee and journal (well, Bonnie didn’t journal that much—she mostly licked my face and sloshed my coffee). I grew comfortable with the systems, like angling the awning at the threat of rain, and lighting the pilot lights on our Princess stove each morning, and I made a master list of daily requisites: reading, prayer and intentional silence, walks and bike rides, and, of course, writing. I outlined my novelling goals in no uncertain terms: One-half chapter a day. Period.

She's a member of the National Geographic Society.

On Monday I picked up a lovely, perfect moon shell—not at the shore, as one might imagine, but at the base of a tree in my own campsite. Was it left there by another pilgrim into silence, some other lone soul learning again or anew the language of solitude? It reminded me of the words of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, from her slim jewel, Gift From the Sea:

“Solitude,” says the moon shell. Every person, especially every woman, should be alone sometime during the day, some part of each week, and each year…the core, the inner spring, can best be re-found through solitude.

I told one of my best friends before we came down here that I was really looking forward to re-finding my solitude. I’m often alone in the round of my life at home—but being alone is not nearly the same thing as being alone with yourself. To be alone with yourself, there first must be a purposeful silencing of the mental chatter with which we’re all so tempted to swaddle our brains in this busy, productive world of ours—and that can be a terrifying thing, particularly if one has forgotten how healing and helpful the deep silences can be. For the only true aloneness, of course, is aloneness with God, open-handed and empty of pretense. How easy it is to base our standing in grace upon our own efforts, howsoever boldly we might declare otherwise. I don’t think I realized how much I’d been congratulating myself over small successes and writhing under habitual failures (that sharp word, that condescending thought, that deadly ingratitude!) until forced to confront the facts in the seclusion of my own soul. All week I carried an image in my mind of a fretful, fussy infant soothed into sudden and unavoidable comfort by the encircling warmth of strong arms which, unlike even the most faithful human embrace, will never let go. My soul is even as a weaned child, said the Psalmist. Be still and know that I am God, said the Lover of my soul. Allright, I said, with the wind and the waves and the sea birds circling overhead as witness. I have no other choice.

Sunday's (extraordinary) sunset.

I was taken aback the first week of our sojourn by the crippling fear that seized me every time I sat down to write. It was really amazing, something I had to painfully press through. I’m realizing, the older I get, that the toll of “too much” on my inner equilibrium is getting steeper and steeper, an expense I can ill-afford to perpetuate. And it always manifests after a season of soul neglect as a serious discrepancy in the inspiration department. There were so many negative voices to drown out when I was trying to write I could hardly hear myself think. But somewhere round about Tuesday of the second week, a curious thing happened. I was writing away (rather grimly, I’m afraid), when my imagination caught the faintest prick of light, like a lone firefly amid the murky shades of a dark wood. I hesitated, pencil poised thoughtfully. Then, seeing as I had absolutely nothing to lose but a few pages of bad prose, I followed it. First one fairy lamp appeared, and then another, and another. And before I knew it, I was in love with my story again, writing furiously each day, often till after 7 at night. It just felt so intoxicating to be anchored in the scenes once more, to know that old excitement that presents itself in my heart as physical pain.

And it felt so good to fall into bed at night, with a stout mug of chamomile tea and a fat Elizabeth Goudge novel, knowing I’d worked as hard as I was able. Ever so much more work to be done, of course, but we’re moving forward again. And I know it wouldn’t have happened without the gift of this time, this place, and the healing spaces of solitude.

Near the end of the week, I rewarded myself with a proper high tea at the lovely 19th century hotel down the road.

Near the end of the week, I rode my bike early to the beach and watched the tide come in. There, alone in the warm sunshine, with the surf pounding in my ears and lapping almost to where I stood, I heard at last the water music that Kreeft was talking about, that endless song which God breathed into His sea, that one lullaby that never grows old:

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A Month by the Sea: Creating Silence

September 8th, 2014

“The present state of the world, the whole of life, is diseased. If I were a doctor and were asked for my advice, I would reply, “Create silence! Bring men to silence. The Word of God cannot be heard in the noisy world of today. Create silence.

~Soren Kierkegaard

My husband and my Lord, in company with the kindest of house-sitters, have conspired to give me an inestimable gift: a month on my beloved jewel of an island. A whole month to write and read and work and dream; to recover a bit from an intense season and recalibrate my inner compass. A month of quiet. We’re ensconced in our Silver Girl under a canopy of moss-clad trees, a brisk little bike ride from our favorite beach on earth. The bookshelf is crammed with carefully selected titles (both new friends and old loves), the galley is stuffed with comestibles, and my dear Brown Betty teapot is on constant duty. We both have clearly marked goals for this time, Philip and I, ambitions towards which want to point this arrow of golden hours. And when the day’s work is done (or when one needs an occasional day-dreamy pause), there are inexhaustible beauties upon which to feast the eyes and the soul: vistas of endless marshland, ever a-teem with the changing life of the tides; sunsets that spill over this green land like an upturned cup of golden wine; long, grey colonnades of live oaks, whose ancient boughs bear the graveclothes of Spanish moss and the mystic, living parable of resurrection fern.

And, of course, and always—the sea.

Bonnie Blue, for one, has definitively made up her mind to be a sea dog. We taught her to swim in the ocean back in May, and at first sight of it last week she took off at a gallop, leaping and yipping for joy. Her exuberance is contagious, rekindling a childlike sense of play that reminds me who I am in a most elemental sense: a child of God. “The sea is a fountain of youth,” said Peter Kreeft with characteristic incision. “Only the child within us can hear the music of the sea.” I heard it the other night as I’ve not heard it in ages, having been lured by Bonnie into a moonlit swim. Picture this: a radiant moonrise in a sapphire sky, scattering the sea with diamonds and turning the sand to silver. Not a sound in the world but the wind and the waves and the music of our own laughter, while beyond that enchanted space of shining water, a darkness and silence so deep it seemed to hold us suspended in time. And in the midst of all that magic, Bonnie Blue bounding and swimming between us like a deliriously happy otter. I’m telling you, there’s little generosity in the world equal to that of a dog sharing it’s own joy. Our Bonnie’s been extravagant with hers, and we’re utterly delighted. And so very grateful.

So, my goal this month is to finish the first draft of my novel, a project I mention to just about everyone I meet as a means of slaying self-consciousness and creating an ever-widening circle of accountability (into which I welcome each one of you). I confess, It’s been a difficult shock the past couple of years to realize that this writing life doesn’t get easier, but harder. I feel like everything I’ve written of late has been wrung out of a great travail—and that it shows. My words feel clunky, ill-fitting. It’s been months since I’ve penned anything I was remotely pleased with, much less anything that’s come without strain; so thickly has the fog settled into the creative spaces of my heart that I’m sorely tempted to doubt those spaces exist at all. I’ve wondered in my darker moments if I’ve said everything I had to say. I’ve wrestled off the bête noire hissing between my ears that I’ve never had anything to say in the first place.

I’ve sought my Hidden Spring—and found it dry.

Before we came down here, I spent some time reflecting in my journal about what I was seeking in this time by the sea, what I was hoping not only to accomplish, but to recover. I was reminded of Thomas Kelly’s “recreating silences,” those deep places of transfigured life from which all true creativity emerges. I remembered the solemn charge of Kierkegaard to create silence: prize it, fight for it, win it at any cost to reputation or image or so-called productivity. He doesn’t say to seek it—he says to make it, as solemnly and faithfully as one might make any work of true art. I decided then and there that I was going to make silence a part of my life here this month in way that I’ve never done before. And unprecedented experiment in quiet.

Accordingly, I seized the first opportunity after we arrived to take an early bike ride to the shore. The sky was a mounting castle-scape of clouds, pillared and turreted, dark and light broken by serene patches of blue, and when the newly risen sun broke between them, it turned the sea below to a sheet of molten gold. It was all so arrestingly, awesomely beautiful, I couldn’t help but think it was the kind of morning on which Christ might return. I propped my bike against a washed up piling, spread my blanket on the hard-packed sand, and commenced to “sit and stare:” to my left, the sea and all that glory of light and shadow; to my right, a startlingly green stand of pines; and before me, the full vista of the beach, a primal forest of twisted tree forms the sea has claimed, the wind has writhed into fantastical shapes, and the sun has whitened to a bleached silvery grey.

I was determined to sit for one hour remembering what silence sounded like, keen to the life around me without contributing any of my own noise—even mental noise, which can be of the very worst sort. Ten minutes in, however, it started to drizzle. I smiled, feeling very philosophical over my imperviousness to a little shower. Then it started to rain, and I tucked my Bible and my phone up under my legs as a precaution. Then it started to pour, and I was tempted to flee, but for the fact of the aforementioned Bible and phone. So, I sat still, gently opening all my senses to what it meant to be caught in a rainstorm on the beach. I savored the icy little drops, stinging my soul and body awake. I noticed the clean-washed scent of rain, mingled with the salt of the sea that summoned a nostalgia I could hardly name. I paid close heed to the way the rain turned the sea and the sky to a misty, uniform grey, and how a sudden rift in the roiling clouds would ignite the bare trees down the beach like the gilding of a fairy’s wand.

I shared the beach with one solitary gull who stood at the water’s edge looking out to sea as if seeing something my eyes weren’t trained for, and a scuttling ghost crab who seemed utterly unmindful of the weather. And as I cycled back down the beach after both the storm and my hour had passed, I was accompanied by four magnificent ospreys, lighting on and wheeling from the heights of dead trees, just exactly as if we were all part of some solemn, silent procession.

I remembered, then, in that wordless place, what the child inside of me has always known: namely, that it’s not so much an excess of care that contributes to a meager inner life, as an absence of prayer and deep, silent communion with God. Inquiring quietly of my own heart, I realized that not only has it been months since I’ve had any real joy in writing, it’s been months since I’ve had any real delight in God’s presence. My prayers have less been conversations and more emergency requests. But one cannot dwell in emergency; resources are exhausted and reserves run dry. And, of course, in that light, I could see the obvious: the Hidden Spring wasn’t dry—it was choked. Those same unavoidable realities of human life that threatened the good seed in the parable of the sower can clog up the deep source from which our Living Water is drawn.

To be soothed down into stillness once more has become the theme of this month for me. To think of one thing at a time, and not twenty-five (how muddled I’ve become with too many words and too many cares!), to let silence and beauty and the Word of God have their ancient work on me—these are the great ambitions of my heart. I still have every intention of finishing my novel. But nothing is more important than recovering that innocence of intimacy with God that’s been buried under a mound of pragmatic, dutiful doing.

I will hear what The Lord God is saying: for He will speak peace to His people, and to His saints: only let them not return to folly.

It’s nothing short of folly to pound away after a vocation without drawing from the wells of salvation. How sweetly He reminds us, though, wooing our souls by every means–from the effortless flight of a bird, to the love song of the sea, to the stormy hunger in our own hearts.

The sea heals us by helping us learn to listen…silence is requisite.
~Peter Kreeft


August 13th, 2014

Two weeks ago I was 13 miles out at sea, at the helm of a 37-foot sloop named It’s About Time (I couldn’t agree more). Under fair skies and in the grip of a fresh breeze, it was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. Even the faint swirl of seasickness felt like a rite of passage (they tell me it fades–in the meantime, half a dramamine and an ice cold Coca Cola did the trick). When Philip and I stepped down onto the dock at the end of the day, I’d swear we had a salty cast to our gait—and that not only because we’d been on the water since nine o’clock that morning.

I’d told him when he’d asked: I want to turn 40 on a boat.

Not just any boat, mind you. A white-winged bird; a bateau à voile. A sailboat.

The sea has had our hearts for years and years—for always, really, for I believe we are born with such essential longings—and sailing has been an inevitable, albeit heretofore unattainable answer to that call. I’ve said there were three things I wanted to do before I turned 40: I wanted to write a book, I wanted to become fluent in French, and I wanted to learn to sail. (I also wanted to get my ears pierced, which I did, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.) My novel is still in draft stage, but my little Poesy is getting ready to make her appearance in the world. And while the most generous assessment would not stretch to call me fluent, twice this summer Philip and I have sat down for drinks and conversation en français with complete strangers whom we’d overheard speaking French—a charming Québécois couple, and the most delightful party of Parisians who corrected my mistakes with smiles and taught me the method of exchanging proper bisous in parting. (Something tells me I’ll meet those lovely folks again some day.)

As far as sailing goes, last summer we took the plunge and signed up for a basic keelboat certification course. And this summer, we were delighted to discover that the next course we’d require, Coastal Cruising 103, just happened to fall on my birthday weekend. I really could turn 40 on a boat! And not only that—I could step off that boat certified to sail our own vessel in blue water someday. The vessel in question is still a rather dim-edged dream: our dinner conversations these days center around essential ideas like sloop or ketch? and centerboard or fixed keel? And, of course, we’ll require plenty of cockpit and cabin room for an exuberant Aussie pup. Bonnie as yet has no idea what we’re talking about, but I have every reason to think that in the not-too-distant future the words, Let’s go sailing! will have as much effect on that eager heart of hers as the oft-repeated, Let’s go Airstreaming!

As we’re haunting sailing forums and scouring boat listings, I keep encountering a word that grabs my heart, and not only in relation to sailboats: nimble. It’s highest praise for a sailing vessel—no matter how much teak you’ve got in the cabin and whether the winches are self-tailing or not, you want a boat that’s going to respond gracefully to all that the helmsman asks of her. A cutter sitting quietly in its slip at the marina can be a thing of beauty, of course, but that’s not what a sailboat’s made for. It’s made for the open seas and that legendary dance with the wind and the water. It’s made for rakish maneuvers and breathtaking heels that send the white spray cresting up over her decks. A nimble boat with a capable hand at the wheel is like a bird in flight. It’s a poem; it’s a love song in motion. And for those lucky enough to be aboard, it’s pure joy.

I want a nimble sailboat. But more than that, I want to be a nimble sailboat. I’ve shared before the conviction I’ve finally given myself permission to own: namely, that in a world of determined steel trawlers and blindingly fast motorboats, my personality is imaged more accurately in the unapologetic sensitivity of a sailboat. I don’t have to be sophisticated, or brilliant, or even, as Anne Shirley would say, angelically good (thank the good Lord for that—and I mean that with all my heart!). But I do want to be responsive to the winds of His spirit in my sails, keen to the sea changes that He’s brewing in my own heart. Just this past week I caught the tenderest whisper: Don’t resent your own restlessness, child. Lean into it. Look for its gifts. Find the stars.

I can say in all honesty that the prospect of turning 40, while unbelievable in some respects, has been one of excitement tinged with magic. I’ve seen too many people I admire dance into their forties with grace and flair to be anything but enchanted (and a little bit relieved) at the idea of a brand-new decade. And I have it on good authority that one of the best things about getting older is caring less and less what other people think of you–which is really the only place from which to love people, of course. I want to leave self-consciousness at the door of this decade; I don’t want its gleaming halls to be sullied with the muddy footprints of my own insecurities. And I think I’m finally ready to allow myself to be a work in progress, to celebrate the fact that God in His mercy has allowed so many false ideas I’d picked up along the way to be dashed—but with equal mercy He’s kept my ideals intact. Sometimes I feel closer to 17 than halfway to 80, which is nothing short of miracle, considering the harsh realities this world’s only too willing too dish up from sunrise to sunset. But the triumvirate romance of Beauty, Truth and Goodness has my heart as much as it ever did. I can say this with no illusions, for there have been seasons over the past twenty years—hours, days, weeks, months—in which I felt I was clinging to these holy Transcendentals in the dark with my eyes shut fast against things that claimed to be more real, and I know now the holding power to have been nothing less radiant than the prayers of the saints (sometimes praying for me without even knowing why) and the courage put into me by honest souls who had stared down darkness with an inextinguishable Light in their eyes.

It’s that Light alone that makes me dare to dream and keep dreaming. To be sure, my life is quite different in many ways than what I imagined it would look like at this point twenty—even ten—years ago. But I wouldn’t change a thing—I’m breathless with the beauty of what God has done. For while there are dreams that will be with me for life, there are others that have quietly given way to new dreams, vistas I hadn’t dared to imagine were really open to me. I wrote in my journal the day after my birthday: part of being nimble means not getting mired emotionally in things I can’t control. It means flexibility, living light; it means opening my hands, not only to let go, but to receive.

One thing that has been dropped into my hands recently is a dream I’ve cherished for so long I can hardly name the moment it was born—perhaps it was reading Surprised by Joy as a teenager, or the first time I stood at the top of St. Mary the Virgin in my early twenties, gazing out over a pinnacled landscape of dreaming spires. But come October, I commence undergraduate studies in English Literature and Creative Writing through Oxford University. It’s a tremendous opportunity, consisting of a combination of both online and in-Oxford courses over the next few years (so we’ll be making some hops across the Pond! :) ), and I am dizzy with gratitude (to quote Anne again). Philip teases that I’m as excited over the prospect of a Bod card as I am over my actual place in the course, and there’s some truth to that—after all, access to one of the most famous libraries in the world is staggering in its own right. But I’m very happy and excited, and thankful that I have the chance to follow this dream at this point in my life. (There were a lot of reasons why I didn’t go to college at 18—and a lot of reasons I’m going now. Perhaps I’ll write more about that at some point.)

I can hardly wait for October. In the meantime, I’m working on my novel every day, determined to have that first draft DONE before my classes start. And I’m working away on Poesy (look for an update on that front in the near future). Philip and I are enjoying our animals and reading Harry Potter together (for the first time—can you believe it?). And, of course, looking at sailboats. (I’ll keep you posted on that front, too. Anyone have an early 70’s Formosa or Cheoy Lee in reasonably good shape they’re wanting to let go of for a song? ;) )


My 40th birthday was pure gift from start to finish, a shining thing I’ll treasure among my very finest gems: in the morning we passed our sailing exam; in the afternoon we sped a few miles down the coast to our favorite hotel on our favorite island; and in the evening we danced the night away to the music of one of the best jazz quartets this side of the 1940’s. I can’t think of a lovelier way to twirl into my fifth decade on this broken but beautiful old earth of ours.

Here’s, Hail! To the rest of the road!

O, Cavalier!

August 4th, 2014

Today marks yet another important date: it is the 100th birthday of Sheldon Vanauken, author of my favorite book of all time, A Severe Mercy. Having honored dear Davy with a sonnet on her illustrious centennial, I could not bear to let this day pass without acknowledging our great chum Van in like manner (though his gift is in the form of a bit of free verse). Reading A Severe Mercy not only incited an absolute volcanic eruption of latent longing and desire in my life, it breathed a loving affirmation that at once broke my heart and healed it. And though our copy has been nearly read to pieces over the years, I cannot so much as crack the cover without a burning rush of that original joy. This poem refers to Van’s final and ultimate surrender to Christ, some twenty years after Davy’s death, a “return to the Obedience” which led to the writing of this immortal book.

Happy Birthday, Van. We owe you the greatest debt. Look forward to telling you all about it over a heavenly pint someday.


O, Cavalier!

When once that gallant head went down
In fealty unforsworn,
And rebel heart consigned to Mercy’s cause,
Love’s triumph shook the earth for such proud prize
And heaven stooped to smile.

Knighted with a poet’s sword,
Branded by a lover’s seal,
The beauty of your breaking pierced the world.

August 4, 2014

A Hail

July 25th, 2014

Davy Vanauken

On this day 100 years ago, something happened that would dramatically impact the course of my life: Jean Palmer Davis was born, known more intimately to the world as Davy Vanauken, beloved wife and heroine of Sheldon Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy. I’ve written elsewhere of that book’s place in my heart, and Philip and I candidly consider Van and Davy some of our dearest friends. Their story of a Christ-invaded love challenged us deeply; their longing for a ‘timefull’ life has leant courage to many of our own dreams as a couple. But on this day, I want to single Davy out and honor her. From my first encounter with her via the pages of her husband’s book, I recognized a kindred soul. Her gaiety, her courage, her wayfaring heart all shone out in living color. I quickened to our common love for England, her appreciation of a good cup of Darjeeling and a country drive under a Virginia sky; I admired the plucky spirit of her sailboat days, and the way she interpreted important experiences in her life through painting. Davy was born six years after one of my grandmothers, and six years before the other, but I’ve never thought of her as anything but a contemporary comrade–and a very beloved one, at that.

Though Davy’s always in my heart, all this past year I’ve held the thought of her poignantly close. She was my age when she found out she was ill, a month out from her 40th birthday. And six months later she was dead. A lamp put out in its prime; a life so full of living cut short by dark providence. But no life is so expendable in the Kingdom’s accounting. Davy is, of course: she lives, not only in Van’s book, but at home in the timelessness they sought so earnestly together in life. And she lives in the witness of untold thousands whose lives were touched by the radiance of her love: for Christ, for her husband, and for the world. I’m not the only one who can say that their life is more because Davy lived, or that the thought of her lends courage to live a life of extravagant love. But I am one of them, and it’s a fact for which I consider myself most supremely blessed.

My friendship with Davy has made my life more beautiful than it would have been without her. She both calls me higher in devotion to Christ and sends me lower in practical application of it. She showed me the Low Door through which imperfect human attempts at love must pass in order to reach the Wonderland-like refinement of Love itself. I keep a picture of her on my writing desk, a faded image of a dark-haired girl with a cheeky smile, perched in the bosun’s chair of Gull, their 18-foot sloop, and whenever I look at it, I can almost hear her say, Be brave. Keep small enough to get through that Low Door. Let your love be big enough to change the world.

Sixty years and two days after Davy was born I made my rather red and mewling appearance on this earth. On Sunday I celebrate my 40th (!!) birthday, and I think it’s quite fitting that the festivities commence today with a coastal cruising sailing course that Philip and I signed up for back in the spring, the next step towards a dream which Van and Davy sparked with their vision of a white-winged schooner under sail.

This tribute isn’t at all what I want it to be, and the poem that follows certainly falls short of what’s in my heart. But I wanted to acknowledge such a momentous “earth time” occasion of something that, in God’s good love and mysterious ways, puts helpless chronos to shame.

Happy Birthday, beloved Davy. I’ll be toasting you in Darjeeling today.

Under the Mercy,


Ave, Davy! Hail, sweet sister! Your bright
Brave spirit breathes a warmth unchilled through years
Of old earth-time, and death’s not dared your light
To dim. By Mercy’s art your star swung near
To mine across an epoch’s swarthy bowl
And flung a spark of glory, holy fire,
Enkindling kindred shining in my soul.
So kindly did that ember sear, desire
Undreamt-of blazed to life and deathly snows
Of fear dissolved. Such high Civility!–
(Your lover’s tears were turned to gems, you know.)
–And yet, o’er all I praise your Courtesy:
Undying lamp illumining Low Door
Of Love’s most noble off’ring evermore.

Image source: Sheldon Vanauken: The Man Who Received A Severe Mercy by Will Vaus, used by gracious permission of the author. The colorized version originally appeared on his blog.