Nulla dies sine linea*

June 12th, 2016

CoB2I’ve shared it in this space before, but one of my very favorite Elizabeth Goudge passages comes from the 1936 A City of Bells. The dreamy child Henrietta has just returned from an exciting stint in Edwardian London, and, upon her homecoming, experiences a sort-of regathering of herself and her dreams:

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.

Elizabeth Goudge, A City of Bells

Henrietta at the station

Henrietta at the station

With the coming of 2016, a torrent of dammed-up blessing seemed to burst its bounds for very joy and come crashing down upon our heads. We’ve laughingly called it a “pile-on of goodness,” but, in the light of the sorrow we’ve known and the grief we’re walking through now, it’s a situation we’re only too thankful to contend with. I feel like I lost something of myself back in the long, dark wood of Daddy’s illness, and in that terrible plunge into the black ocean of bereavement. Of course I did—a certain innocence, a naivety of death’s finality. And, of course, I’ve gained things in those places I could not have otherwise. Things that will mark me for life, and things that are very, very precious to me. I do not grudge the mercies I’ve been shown.

But I also cannot let myself grudge—or worse, distrust—some of the goodness that’s carrying us along these days. As George MacDonald says, “Good is always coming.” But sometimes, when it shows up, it makes us a little afraid. And, in this case, it’s made me a little tired. Like Henrietta, I’ve needed to readjust myself a bit to the “twin facts” of my (very introverted, very idealistic!) personality and the realities of the period of history in which God has seen fit to place it. And, like my young book friend, I’m feeling the need to recalibrate after a season of sustained “alarums and excursions.”

I’m deeply thankful for abundance of this place, and for the perspective grief has granted. When Philip and I sat down the other night to recount the first half of this year—the time we’ve been able to spend with family and friends, the good news we’ve heard, the unlooked-for and long hoped-for gifts that have fallen into our laps—we were, quite frankly, amazed. What’s more, everything—every day—seems so starkly precious now. Not to suggest that we’re free of care in the least. There are questions and shadows and situations in this life that burden our hearts very much—unbearably so, at times. But it’s good to be brought up short by the reminder that all news isn’t bad; that God isn’t threatened by our hearts’ native longings. That, as Catherine Marshall put it, “dreams carried around in one’s heart for years … have a way of suddenly materializing.”

The winter and spring were a whirl of travel and study. After signing up for a Middle English Literature course at Oxford for the very ignoble reason that the Advanced Creative Writing course I wanted to take was full, I managed to fall head-over-heels in love with medieval culture and texts. Just about every assumption I had about the period was challenged in the most wonderful way, and it was heart-kindlingly delightful to stumble into some of my dearest literary heroes and mentors among all those illumined manuscripts and epic poems—Lewis, Tolkien, Charles Williams, T.S. Eliot, Dorothy Sayers—and to realize as never before just how profoundly their works were influenced by their intimacy with Middle English texts. Hilary term was, in many ways, a budding literary romance for me, and I have not the least doubt that both my studies and my writing will be marked by it henceforth.

In the midst of all this, we gave my bookshop a total overhaul, traveled to Tennessee for the From Death Unto Life conference in March, had our house painted, and heard Joan Baez in concert, among other things. What’s more, back in February, we sailed our new (to us!) sailboat from Florida (where we bought her) up to Georgia (where she now resides most happily). More about this later, I promise, but this maiden voyage was a huge deal for us, inaugurating a new and totally unprecedented season in our lives. She’s an old girl, and she needs lots of love; but she’s beautiful—stouthearted and seaworthy, and we adore her, stem to stern. (I can’t announce her name yet, as we haven’t had a proper re-christening ceremony, but, trust me, it’s perfect.)

The Maiden Voyage

The Maiden Voyage

In April we were able to spend a few weeks at the coast in the Airstream, working on our boat at the nearby marina. And three days after we got home I flew out for two weeks in Europe. I’ve never taken such a big trip without Philip before (and we’ve never been apart for so long!), but the opportunity to travel to Italy with one of my oldest and dearest friends was pure gift and goodness. I hadn’t laid eyes on her in four years—and what a four years they’ve been! But when I looked up and saw her in the Paris airport it was as if we’d parted only the day before.

Lovely Varenna

Lovely Varenna

Throughout our time in Italy we did what we always do: we laughed until we cried, and we talked until sympathetic tears stood in our eyes. And then we laughed again, because, in spite of all its hardness and brokenness, it really is a lovely old world yet. (We also ate lots of gelato, and bought floppy straw hats, and wandered in silence among ancient terraced gardens clinging to the shores above Lake Como. And whenever we got in the car to go anywhere, we clutched hands and prayed we wouldn’t be killed because, hello, we were in Italy, and I was driving! ;))

Giardindi Botanici, Villa Cipressi

Giardindi Botanici, Villa Cipressi

“We will look back on this time for the rest of our lives,” she said, as we sat out on our little terrace overlooking a cobbled lane with the shimmering lake beyond, and swallows and bell-song filling the air above our heads.

She was right; one month out, and it already has the tender distance of a dream.

The cobbled lanes of Bellagio

The cobbled lanes of Bellagio

From Milan I flew on to England for a week in Oxford. After the glorious indolence of Italy, I had to hustle to keep pace with a brimming schedule of meetings and lectures and libraries. But it was glorious in its own right. I’ve often called Oxford the city of my heart, which is entirely true. It holds a sacred, scarcely articulable magic for me, haunted as it is by the memory of men and women who have influenced me most profoundly in my faith—the shining ones whose words have called forth latent longings in my heart and whose “lively lives in Christ” have assured me of things I had always hoped were true. I stumble into my heroes around every corner in Oxford, which is almost unbearably poignant at times. On my last full day, I skipped a very appealing lecture on “Music in Shakespeare” to wander along the sun-dappled shades of Addison’s Walk at Magdalen College, one of C.S. Lewis’ favorite footpaths. I love imagining Lewis there, thinking his long thoughts as he paced the very ground beneath my feet, sorting imponderables into disarmingly simple prose.

The Water Meadow, Magdalen College, Oxford

The Water Meadow, Magdalen College, Oxford

No one has expressed how I feel about sharing spaces with my great ones like dear old G.M. Hopkins:

Yet ah! this air I gather and I release
He lived on; these weeds and waters, these walls are what
He haunted who of all men most sways my spirits to peace.  

(Endearingly enough, I felt the very same way standing in the dim aisle of the Oxford Oratory, where Hopkins was once curate. Of all poets, he most sways my heart to joy.)

The Oxford Oratory Catholic Church of St. Aloysius

The Oxford Oratory Catholic Church of St. Aloysius

A muddy little byway leading off of the main walk led me to a stone bench thoughtfully placed before the gate to the Water Meadow, and there I sat for a solid hour contemplating the view of flower-sprinkled mead and golden spires beyond. I thought about the adventures behind me, the confidence that had grown with getting myself from one European country to another, the staggering opportunities that little University Card had afforded me in Oxford. And I thought about what I was taking back home with me: presents for Philip, of course; silk scarves for our mothers; a pair of geeky little “9 ¾” earrings for myself. But so much more than that—I was carrying a new clarity on some very important issues, a refined sense of calling, a clutch of answers to specific prayers. And I had an injunction, a clear and loving commandment that had been whispering itself to my heart through all the challenges and delights and contemplative moments of my travels:

Stay Uncomfortable.

In other words, I must keep allowing myself to be thrown into situations and opportunities in which I am completely over my head. I must keep letting my limits be pushed, embracing the utter disquietude that often (usually, always) accompanies a genuine heart’s desire. I mustn’t allow fear or self-consciousness or inexperience to tether me to the dock when God is longing to breathe wind into my sails. No matter how old I get, I must never allow complacency to masquerade as contentment. Contentment is a lovely thing—a holy thing, in its proper expression. But it must never become an excuse for disobedience.

Broad Street, Oxford

Broad Street, Oxford

I had an unmistakable confirmation of my calling while I was in England. A host of deeply meaningful moments which I never could have engineered added up to a freshened sense of God’s personal and very particular love. And they pointed indisputably in the direction of my Obedience. I’m still making space in my heart (and life) to articulate this great verity, but I know that it’s time reclaim some of the ground that sorrow and weariness have taken; time to evict self-consciousness (yet again) and laugh fear in its ugly face.

In other words, it’s time to get back to my desk.

I’ve been looking forward to the summer as a bit of a breather after the wild ride of the winter and spring. But I’ve also been yearning towards something else, leaning like a plant to the sun. I want a rest, but I want a challenge, too. I love all the excitement of passports and suitcases and opera tickets and term papers (yes, I’m a total nerd), but I’m ready to recalibrate a bit, trim my sails, if you will. In the spirit of a lighthearted contest I undertook several years ago, I’ve decided to commit to a little personal dare over the next several months: to sit at my desk and to keep words flowing for exactly one hour, every day, six days a week. I realize that this doesn’t sound like much, but it’s more than the absolute nothing I’ve been writing lately (and academic writing doesn’t count—not that it can be less creative than other forms of wordsmithery, but it comes so hard for me it’s not the playful romp I both need and want right now). And I know from experience that a short daily commitment to anything can be surprisingly productive. An hour of drivel can open out into a sudden vista of insight; a habit makes space for magic to happen. As the incomparable Leif Enger told us at Hutchmoot a few years ago, “Persistence is the landing strip of the Muse.”

I don’t have a lot of high-falutin’ goals (okay, maybe I do, but I’m trying not to weight this sweet new enthusiasm with a burden of outcomes); I’m just remembering how to write for fun again. And the only way to do that, of course, is to write for Love.

The City of My Heart

The City of My Heart

Bless you if you’ve borne with me through this wandering post. Even as I’m writing it, my heart warms with wonder and gratitude that there are people out there who actually care enough to show up here and read my ramblings; hearts in which my words find safe haven. I feel like I need to close every post with a very misty-eyed “thank you.”

Under the Obedience,

~L

p.s.

The folks who put on the From Death Unto Life conference (billed as an artistic preparation for Holy Week), have graciously made the audio available for free! If you’re interested, you can find a link to the session I shared with my beloved friend, Jennifer Trafton. It’s called “Creativity as a Spiritual Discipline.”

Also, I’m writing this post from our sailboat as the sun is dipping low over the marshes, flooding our cabin with amber light. I’m just starting to think about supper, and Philip just turned on a fantastic Dinah Washington record. This song came on, and it absolutely warmed the cockles of my dreamer’s heart. And it made me think about this post by my my dear Sarah Clarkson that pretty much changed my life (resulting in the above-mentioned session.)

St. Mary Magdalen Church, Woodstock

St. Mary Magdalen Church, Woodstock

*”Not a day without a line,”–the motto of the Art Students’ League in New York.

Surprised by Joy

March 23rd, 2016

surprised by joy

I had the privilege of presenting last weekend at the From Death Unto Life conference in Franklin, Tennessee, and one of my sessions was a short plenary on William Wordsworth’s immortal sonnet, “Surprised by Joy” (the poem from which C.S. Lewis took the title of his stupendously wonderful spiritual autobiography). I thought I’d share some of my thoughts here as we navigate the most important week of the Christian year. Bereavement lends such perspective to the great realities of our Lord’s death and resurrection–there’s just nothing like losing someone we love to seal the brand on our hearts of what “death unto life” really means.

Hallelujah.

Surprised by Joy

by William Wordsworth

Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom
But Thee, long buried in the silent Tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind—
But how could I forget thee?—Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss!—That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

I used to think this poem was about joy. After my father died last summer, I thought it was about grief. Now I know, of course–but as never before–it’s about both. At the exact same time.

This lovely and heartbreaking sonnet exemplifies the concept of what the Orthodox Church has long referred to as Bright Sadness, that cohabitation of grief and joy that characterizes the keenest moments of our lives. Those moments when the veil grows thin and we know just how near the unseen verities really are. It’s the tension that Paul described in II Corinthians as “sorrowful, but always rejoicing”.

When I stepped into the room after my father was gone, I suddenly knew, in a way I could never explain, that everything I believed about life and death and eternity and redemption was absolutely true. It was so devastating and so sublime I could hardly bear it.

Death is arguably the most clarifying force in the world. But when you lose someone you love, there’s this frantic urgency to keep them alive by bringing them into everything you do. By constantly looking at the world through their eyes; imagining how they would react to things; interpreting events the way they would have.

The single most oft-repeated phrase that has come out of my mouth since my dad died last summer is, Daddy would have LOVED this.

Whether the oyster pie at our Christmas feast,
Or the early spring announcement of the sandhill cranes overhead,
Or offshore sailing in our new boat,
Or the Joan Baez concert we went to last week—

He’s here, his memory so integrated with my experience that it’s almost easy to pretend he’s not really gone. (It’s a game we all like to play, I think.)

But a time will come when I forget to remember what he’d think, or say, or do.

Not a permanent forgetting, of course. But a time when my grief grows gentle enough to lie still a while. When sorrow steps outside the frame lines of the camera lens, instead of standing front and center, an entity around which, under which, through which I see everything else. I dread that—my heart protests it. But the universality of this poem asserts that it will happen.

Bereavement is so terrifying because it brings the loved one nearer than ever while flaunting their unattainable absence. The early shock of grief protects us from the full blow of death’s finality, and this is a mercy. But a necessary distancing must occur, a withdrawal that feels almost worse than the original loss.

The Second Death, as Sheldon Vanauken called it.

Wordsworth wrote this poem two years after the death of his 4 year-old daughter, Catherine, a blow that was as sudden as it was cruel. The heartbreak here isn’t just that he’s forgotten she’s dead—he’s forgotten to remember she’s dead. He hasn’t kept up his end of the bargain—and we all like to bargain with death, don’t we? If we can just keep dancing in the tip of this precipice we won’t fall over the edge. (Some people describe this stage of grief as feeling like the loved one has died all over again. I’m not looking forward to that.)

It might seem that this poem ends on a hopeless note, but I don’t think so at all. Honest, but not hopeless. It’s a heavenly face the poet contemplates–not in a disembodied sense, or as an overly sentimental assessment of the deceased’s virtues and qualities. Like Rosetti’s Blessed Damozel “leaning out over the gold bar of heaven,” it’s Catherine’s face he sees in his mind’s eye. Catherine as she actually was in life; Catherine as he will see her again.

But he acknowledges the distance, the unbridgeable gap between himself and his little girl. Like the antimony of bright sadness, the unseen world is at once astonishingly present and impossibly far away.

I love the fact that Wordsworth does not resort to platitudes in this poem. “Surprised by Joy” is pure lyric poetry, a raw outburst of the deepest feelings of the heart. He doesn’t offer us a cleaned up version of his experience, with a happy Sunday school moral tacked on the end, but the deeply Christian reality of joy and sorrow intermingled, inseparable. Undeniable.

And it ends on Good Friday—the silent tomb, the grievous loss.

But we’ve already seen intimations of resurrection in that impatient surging of life, in the surprise of that sudden, unlooked-for joy, where joy ought not to be—right in the midst of grief.

Joy is the poet’s token in pledge—and it’s ours, as well.

It’s a promissory note of the reunion waiting on the other side of separation.

It’s the first golden shaft of Easter morning…

 

March 14

March 14th, 2016

IMG_6998

I remember the way you talked about your daddy,
How your eyes would dim when you said he was only 81.
“He’d have lived to 100, if he hadn’t smoked.”

I understand, now.
I know the waking panic of 3 AM;
The nauseating sense that a great mistake has been made—
A wrong that must be remediated,
An overturning that must be righted.

I know what it means to scrabble and claw in the dark
After the elusive solution,
That golden key which will turn this tragedy
Back into the comedy it’s meant to be.

It doesn’t help to tell myself it’s not my fault,
That no penance of mine will ever bring you back,
No gauntlet win your freedom from this foe.

(How long the years stretch forth when stained by loss!)

You didn’t make it, either—
Your daddy was gone before you got there,
Though you drove through the night.

(But I understand why you never went back to New Orleans.)

I crossed a continent, mad as Mercury to be at your side.
For what—to make you stay? To hold you back
In that broken body? Imprisoned for one more second
In the fear and pain of a shattered mind?

Never.

(And, yet, I can’t help feeling there must be
Something I should have done.)

It’s never safe to lose a daddy like yours

Or mine.

You would have been 68 today.
(Are you older or younger now?)
Perhaps, in years to come, this will again be a day of laughter,
And remembering. Today
All I can think is, “Too young.”

I never can stomach the shrinking delicacy of “passed away.”
The daintiness that glances aside from Death’s firm gaze
And calls it someone’s “time.”

But I know you shouldn’t be dead.

You should be ripping through the grand tall tale of your life,
Braver than a boar hog,
Stronger than a new rope,
Wild as a buck,
Light-hearted as a summer sky.

You should be flinging out the great largesse of your laugh,
Making all within earshot as rich as kings.

You should be telling me to do what I’m made for,
Telling me not to be afraid of life.
(You never did have to tell me that—
When you were near, I wasn’t scared of anything.)

But if Death’s dark grammar defies imprecision,
Mercy all the more demands exactitude:
I cannot speak of you in lies of “was” and “were.”

And while I pine for your smile,
The sound of your voice,
The calloused knots of your hands,

I cannot deny that you are.

The oldest corner of my soul knows just how near,
The youngest learns that while I live,
Something of you lives on, as well.

What a charge, your living, and dying, and living again!
Do you have the least idea what wealth you’ve wrapped me in?
(I think you do.)

The last thing you ever said was, “I love you.”

IMG_6817

*photo credit: Frank Gibson

Ladies’ Choice

February 29th, 2016

On with the dance! Let joy be unconfined; no sleep till morn when Youth and Pleasure meet!" ~Byron

On with the dance! Let joy be unconfined; no sleep till morn when Youth and Pleasure meet!” ~Byron

Looking back, I’ve always called it the Annus Mirabilis: my own little wonderful year. Its wonders consisted not in calamity (thank goodness!), nor were they even of a particularly earth-shattering nature. But it was a (mostly) happy year for me, dawning in the sudden strong goodness of abundant friendship, and closing with an appropriate dose of healthy, if painful, experience. I stepped into 1996 unseasoned and hopelessly idealistic—and I stepped out of it slightly less naïve, but with more cause for ideals than ever. In a way, that sweet year shaped my ideals, and in another way it confirmed them.

I was twenty-one years old: a ballet teacher, a piano teacher, and working at the antiquarian bookstore where I received my apprenticeship (and not just in books!) from one of the finest women I will ever know. More to the point, I was full-time maid-of-honor to my best friend as she prepared and planned for her June wedding to the worthy Australian who’d won her heart. I little imagined what our coming separation would mean in those endlessly happy days of poring over dress sketches and comparing weaves of linen for the bridesmaids’ gowns and discussing the various virtues of punch recipes with as much seriousness as if the world depended upon our choice. Everything was touched with magic and romance and significance in that time of deeply distilled aliveness; there were no ordinary things or unremarkable days.

I remember sitting cross-legged on Rachel’s bedroom floor, talking until the country night grew grey outside the windows and the whippoorwills gave way to the whistles and coos of bobwhite quail. I remember April picnics wherein we read Browning aloud (E.B., of course) and starred each other’s hair with violets. I remember going to see Sense and Sensibility together in the theatre, and bursting into such a torrent of uncontrollable tears at the end that a stranger several seats over passed me her packet of tissues. (For one who doesn’t cry in public, I did an awful lot of it in those days, and usually because I was happy.)

I remember the way my friend looked at me that last night, the night before she left everything she’d ever known to go and live in Australia with her new husband. The way she clenched my hands and made me promise I’d never marry anyone I couldn’t do the same thing for.

Of course I won’t. (I didn’t, for the record. I would live on the moon with Philip, or at the bottom of a well, or in the heart of the Amazonian wilds (please with a pair of stout boots, though). But I didn’t know him yet, or imagine such a fit for me existed in this world, so it was very much a promise of faith.)

My happy preoccupation with my friend and her wedding existed within the milieu of a wider circle of friendship which had materialized so suddenly and untraceably that even in the midst of our most frenzied activity and merriment, I never lost my awe of it. I still haven’t. It was nothing less than a gift of God, for which I remain most dazedly thankful. Even at this distance—or, perhaps, especially so—the wonder of such warm, youthful companionship still stings my heart awake with joy. I thought I knew how blessed I was then; looking at the world today, with all of its impediments to true connection, I realize I barely dreamed what a gift lay within my hands.

We called ourselves the Crowd, and later the Clan, as a general Celtic mania overspread our ranks. (We even appointed a chieftain, descended from none other than William Wallace himself.) There was always something going on—or, at least, a small clutch of us somewhere plotting something to go on. And no matter what frolics and festivities the weekends held, Thursday night found us unquestioningly in the basement of an old Presbyterian church off the Square of my hometown practicing the jigs and reels and intricate figures of Scottish Country Dancing. We’d discovered it the autumn before at the Highland Games, and consequently descended on the local branch class with more energy than art, and an increasing entourage of younger brothers and sisters. But the good ladies and gentlemen of the Royal Scottish Country Dancing Society welcomed us with open arms, restructuring their entire system to accommodate the population explosion we’d generated within their orderly class. There were socials every month, and balls at Christmas and in May, and we girls were over the moon with the likeness of the thing to the dancing we’d seen in our beloved Jane Austen “bonnet dramas.” (For the uninitiated, Scottish Country Dancing is a close cousin to the English contradancing one sees in all those Regency-era films, with the couples facing one another in long lines, or sets, running the length of the room.) We ragged our hair, and made Empire-waisted gowns, and basically forgot that we were living in the 20th century. Incidentally, if the guys weren’t quite so wildly enthusiastic about the whole Austen connection, I will say that they threw themselves into the spirit of Scottish Dancing with admirable zeal, and on the whole were Thoroughly Good Sports.

At the beginning of 1996, we had several months of classes and a genuine Christmas ball under our belts. Never ones to deny our hearts of any youthful joy, we’d eventually take our dancing into the fields of historic sites, into nursing homes, into the courtyard of our favorite coffee shop, and—get this—to the legendary Tattoo at the Stone Mountain Highland Games, where we danced before a full arena to the wild, sweet accompaniment of the Atlanta Pipe and Drum Corps! But that’s a whole ‘nother story…

(We also danced at each other’s weddings, naturally enough, no fewer than a dozen of which came out of that delightful jumble of mixed company.)

I find it appropriate that my annus mirabilis was a Leap Year, in itself something of a wonder. And there was only one appropriate response to such a happy fact: a party! Drawing from Victorian traditions of feminine forwardness connected with the day (it was actually considered permissible for a woman to propose to a man on Leap Day!), my sister and I plotted an elaborate scheme of dances and tongue-in-cheek games to celebrate the night with our friends. The whole thing was so brilliant we could scarcely believe we’d come up with it—we only hoped our mother could be equally convinced of our inspiration.

I remember distinctly pitching the idea to her, waving my arms about our open-plan dining room and living room in indication of what could be done with the furniture.

“We can slide the table up against the far wall for refreshments, and we can turn the sofa against the plate glass windows, and we can put the harvest table in the den.” I dismissed it with a flick of the wrist. “And all these little side tables and chairs can go…somewhere.”

“We need lots of room for the dancing,” my sister explained.

My mother listened with a look of faint resignation—the same look I’d seen some years before when I’d explained how easily this same space could be converted into a stage, complete with a curtain (“It’ll only take a few nails…”) and seating for the audience.

“Besides,” my sister added with characteristic philosophy, “the next time Leap Year comes around, we’ll all be too old to dance.”

My long-suffering mother sighed. And, just as on that former occasion, she smiled and said “Yes” to the upheaval of her entire house in the name of one of my “ideas.” God bless her for it.

We accordingly dispatched hand-written invitations to a Leap Day party, which were received with eagerness, if not a little puzzlement. Fortunately for our plan, the day fell on a Thursday, a night already sacred to dancing in our set, and it would be easy enough to shift the weekly after-class party from the coffee shop on the Square to our house a few blocks away. Liz and I came up with a set list of dances we knew and dances that just sounded awesome, like “Frost and Snow,” and “Byron’s Strathspey,” and we made dance cards for everyone out of playing cards—the girls’ had long ribbons so they could dangle from the wrist and never be out of reach. We cut hearts from red paper with famous couples’ names on them, then we cut them in half for a fun little partner matching game. Apart from that, it was understood that, on this night, at least, the girls would do all the asking.

I was so excited I almost wished the class away so that we could get home to our party. But, at long last, it was time, and Liz and I raced back to the house just ahead of our guests to make sure that the fire was dancing and the food was on the table. We’d just lit the last candle when, with an explosion of laughter and shedding of coats, the Clan was upon us.

Twenty years later, it still makes my heart glad to look back upon that night and to remember all our young joy. My parents’ house rang with the music of our happiness as we whirled and reeled, laughing our way through the dances, yet still pulling them off with something of their intended beauty. I see couples flying “down the middle and up” of our long, ranch living room, and suddenly my eyes are blurred with tears and there’s a funny burning at the back of my throat. Such a time of sweet intensity and longing and unbounded hope! Goodness knows we all had a lot to learn, and not a one of us came through that season without being scathed in some way by life or love or the ordinary pains of growing up. But how glad I am that I got to do so much of my growing up in company of such fun-loving, noble-hearted, intelligent and altogether interesting young men and women. They gave me so much joy, and I owe them more than I can say.

Liz and I had one last surprise for our friends the night of the Leap Day party: a custom dance that she and I had written especially for the occasion. We set it to the lively ballroom track “Miss Grey” from the Sense and Sensibility soundtrack (arduously spliced in order to make it long enough for an entire set to dance), and it included, among other notable figures, the pretty little move from the film wherein the dancers face one another through a ring of their joined arms. It took some doing to coax fluidity out of the guys with such an unfamiliar step. But, as on other occasions, they were up to it, and once we’d all become comfortable with the figures of the dance, we danced it again and again. And again.

We’d named it, appropriately enough: “Ladies’ Choice.”

The naming of the presses, and a new employee in the shop

February 25th, 2016

jubilee

I love naming things. I’ve named my car (Happiness Runs), my favorite picnic blanket (McIntosh) and our wireless portable speaker (Hank, for Henry Mancini, of course.) My guitar is Gilbert and my ukulele is Cordelia. Every time we acquire a new animal I spend days happily mulling over just exactly what they’re meant to be called–and every time I light on it the knowledge comes with a certain settling of confirmed instinct. The exception might be the case of my cats (who generally have literary names but also include my black-cat-Oxford-scholars, Magdalen and Balliol), for, as T.S. Eliot is faithful to remind us, cats name themselves. At any rate, they are tolerant of my designations–or, at least, they all come running when I rattle off a a string of, “Josephine-Lucy-Pip-Wemmick-Oliver-Maudie-Balliol!” at suppertime. My sheep and goats have Shakespearean names (much as we love Harry Potter, I’m constantly having to tell people that our Hermione’s namesake hails from “A Winter’s Tale”, not The Sorcerers Stone), and my female Pyrs seem to have acquired the tradition of being called after Roman goddesses.

(Only one true misfire, and that was in the naming of my rooster, Margot. I’m sure it’s easy to imagine the circumstances surrounding that misappellation, and the consternation that resulted when Margot got bigger than all “her” sisters and started crowing! He’s very bitter, and takes it out on me at every opportunity. But the fact remains: if I’m generally good at naming, I’m very bad at re-naming.)

So when I started turning over names for my beautiful 19th century book presses, I felt confident that the right idea was dancing around at the fringes of my mind, just waiting to seize me (not the other way around). When it did, I looked up the passage thus invoked and read it with a smile of satisfaction. Yes, that was just exactly what I was after…

It came from Dorothy Sayers’ novel, The Nine Tailors. Set in the fens of East Anglia, this book is as much a rhapsody over the high art of change ringing as it is a deliciously complex mystery. I remembered the way Sayers described the bells of Fenchurch St. Paul in such vivid-but-tender language that their tones leapt off the page with an exquisite cacophony of genuine personality. It’s one of those passages that makes my heart beat faster, it’s so fraught with the life-affirming sense of “selving” one finds in the poetry of G.M. Hopkins, and the bold strokes of an author in command of her craft and in love with her subject.

The bells gave tongue: Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul, rioting and exulting high up in the dark tower, wide mouths rising and falling, brazen tongues clamouring, huge wheels turning to the dance of the leaping ropes. Tin tan din dan bim bam bom bo–tan tin din dan bam bim bo bom–tan dan tin bam din bo bim bom–every bell in her place striking tuneably, hunting up, hunting down, dodging, snapping, laying her blows behind, making her thirds and fourths, working down to lead the dance again. Out over the flat, white wastes of fen, over the spear-straight, steel-dark dykes and the wind-bent, groaning poplar trees, bursting from the snow-choked louvres of the belfry, whirled away southward and westward in gusty blasts of clamour to the sleeping counties went the music of the bells–little Gaude, silver Sabaoth, strong John and Jericho, glad Jubilee, sweet Dimity and old Batty Thomas, with great Tailor Paul bawling and striding like a giant in the midst of them. Up and down went the shadows of the ringers upon the walls, up and down went the scarlet sallies flickering roofwards and floorwards, and up and down, hunting in their courses, went the bells of Fenchurch St. Paul.

Dorothy Sayers, The Nine Tailors

Don’t you just love that? Doesn’t it make you want to leap to do what you’re uniquely made for, pealing out the story of your life like a bell with its own tongue and tone, all the while ringing in glad concert with other bells? Perhaps my mind is just odd enough to connect a description of change ringing plunked in the middle of a murder mystery, Hopkins’ “As kingfishers catch fire,” and the equipment (and, consequently, the work) of my own little bookshop–but in my mind it’s a golden thread, gathering a host of sweet longings into a bundle of meaning and purpose.

At any rate, it’s a long-winded explanation of why I’ve named my presses after church bells. After languishing in a dark basement for who-knows-how-long, these book presses are finally doing exactly what they were made to do–and so am I. Book binding, for me, is a facet of a larger calling that’s too untame for names and labels–it’s part of an overarching vocation of words and relationships and the cultivation of beauty that I can’t really describe but I know it’s sunk its hook in my heart. And that calling, of course, is meant to lose itself in the glorious Love Song that’s been pealing over human history since the foundation of the world.

When I sit down to write a poem, or share about a book I love, or sew a stack of collated signatures into a text block, something deep within me chimes out: Whát I dó is me: for that I came!  And, with Gospel-backed audacity, I dare to affirm G.M. Hopkins’ assertion that a human being fully “selved” in Christ can’t help but reveal Christ in the ordinary equipment of a unique life.

So, without further ado, allow me to present Gaude (pronounced “Gaudy”) and Dimity:

Gaude

Gaude

Dimity

Dimity

And in addition to these lovely dames, we have a newcomer: an early 20th century Multigraph guillotinepaper cutter. I never knew that I could be so excited over 500 lbs of steel! But when Philip showed it to me on Craigslist, my heart was utterly gone. I had to have it for my shop–it was the very cutter I’d been dreaming of for five years. We got a fantastic deal on it, and the nice man we bought it from was tickled to learn that I would actually be using it. This thing goes through book board like butter, and will add a tremendous layer of efficiency to my processes. Please join me in welcoming Batty Thomas to the shop:

From a dusty barn in Indiana, to a farmhouse in Georgia, Batty Thomas is finally home.

From a dusty barn in Indiana, to a farmhouse in Georgia, Batty Thomas is finally home.

(And let me just add that it took two days, the brains of an engineer, and three people to get this bad boy up the stairs and down the hall into my shop. Many thanks to my brother-in-law for helping us along a rather harrowing journey. I was so sore the next morning I could hardly move!)

Jericho the lying press and Jubilee the sewing press.

Jericho the lying press and Jubilee the sewing press.

And so, the work is underway once more. I’m currently stitching the signatures on Jubilee, the sewing press, after marking them up for sewing on Jericho, the lying press. Each book consists of 20 signatures (folded packets of 16 pages each), which are hand-sewn onto cotton tapes. The next step is to tip in the illustrations and endpapers, and then glue on the mull–which is what holds the text block firmly together within the book board covers. After that, they’ll all pay a visit to Batty Thomas and be trimmed down before the covers are attached. Then they will be dressed in a lovely pale green book cloth, with gilted titles and a beautiful full-color paste-down cover illustration (more of my sister’s work–I cannot wait for you to see it!).

Jubilee and Jericho

Jubilee and Jericho, with my beloved left-handed scissors. 

It’s a long, slow process. But I love it. Thanks for sharing the journey with me.

6 down, 94 to go...

6 down, 94 to go…

Soli Deo Gloria.

Some recipes and a winner!

February 12th, 2016

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It is my pleasure to announce the winner of the drawing for a copy of Sally and Sarah Clarkson’s new book The Lifegiving Home: Linda, who describes home as a shelter of “grace-oriented” relationship (what a beautiful image!). Linda, if you will send me your mailing address via the secure Contact form, I will dispatch this wonderful book without delay!

How I wish I could send a copy to every one of you! And I want to thank you for such wonderful replies to my question: What is the one thing about your place on earth that most speaks “home” to you? I realized as I started to consider the matter myself, just how difficult of a question I’d asked! But upon reflection, I think I would have to say that candlelight and firelight flickering over the faces of people I love is home to me—always has been and always will be.

I do urge you to read through the comments, if you haven’t already. I was touched and inspired by the thoughtfulness everyone brought to this question. So many friendly glimpses into the sacred spaces of your homes. It truly warmed my heart.

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And, as promised in my afternoon tea post yesterday, here are a few simple suggestions for making any cup of tea a special occasion:

We are indebted to the British for many things in this world, not the least of which is their glorious clotted cream. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to procure in this country, so when the real thing can’t be had, I content myself with this easy substitute. Granted, it’s not nearly as divine as the original, but it will exalt a humble scone to a thing of decadence:

Mock Devonshire Cream:

Whip ½ cup heavy cream with 2 Tablespoons powdered sugar till stiff peaks form. Then gently fold in ½ cup sour cream. Serve generously* with warm scones or tea biscuits, and, if desired, strawberry jam or lemon curd.

I love finger sandwiches at teatime: they are easy to prepare ahead of time, and a nice selection can be provided for your guests. Here are a few of my favorites:

Cream cheese and olive:

Finely chop about a cup of manzanilla olives with pimentos and blend with 8 ounces cream cheese. Spread onto white or wheat bread from which the crusts have been removed and the slices cut in triangle ‘points.’ Top with another point. (These are especially pretty at Christmas, with all the red and green, but I love them any time of year.)

Cream cheese and pineapple:

Prepare the same as for cream cheese and olive, only add 2/3 cup finely chopped pineapple to the cream cheese in place of the olives. If you are using canned pineapple, be sure to drain before mixing with the cream cheese. (These sandwiches are best on white bread, in my opinion.)

And, finally, one of the simplest and most time-honored of tea treats is good, old-fashioned Scottish shortbread, which can be whipped up at a moment’s notice. You can add any manner of flavorings, from dried cranberries and spices in the winter, to lemon peel or a dash of lavender in the summer. But I like it best plain:

 

Scottish Shortbread:

1 pound butter
6 cups flour
1 ½ cups sugar
½ cup cornstarch

Soften the butter in a large bowl, then sift the dry ingredients over it and mix well with your hands. Keep working the mixture until all is incorporated and nothing is sticking to the sides of the bowl. Place the dough on a cookie sheet and pat into a disk about ½ inch thick. Using a fork, prick a pattern of small wedges, radiating out from the center. Bake at 350 degrees until the edges start to brown, about 30 minutes. Break the shortbread on the pricked lines and sprinkle with granulated sugar before serving.

I hope that you all have a lovely Valentine’s weekend, and perhaps even a pause for a proper cup of tea! :)

*I mean that. 😉

photo credit: Mark Geil

The Pleasures of Tea

February 11th, 2016

nearly tea

photo credit: Mark Geil

I confess, I find it difficult to comprehend the mindset which relegates the consumption of hot tea to cold weather. Call it an addiction, but I down my daily quota year-round, whether, like today, I’m cozy by the fire with flurries flying outside, or dewy-faced on the front porch in the middle of July. My European friends assure me I’m not alone, and that the drinking of hot beverages on a sweltering day actually helps your body work harder to cool itself off (or something like that). But the fact is, afternoon tea is a civility I’m just not willing to dispense with, whatever the calendar says.

I won’t attempt to deny the exquisite comfort of tea in the bleak midwinter, however. There are few pleasures equal to that of wrapping your hands around a warm cuppa on a cold day. And while I drink tea out of habit (brewed in my Brown Betty pot and sipped from a Blue Willow teacup, bien sûr!), it does not in the least diminish my sense of connection to a ritual I value, not only for its social uses, but its historical tradition.

My friends and I treat the taking of tea together with great solemnity, employing good china and linen napkins for our regular gatherings, and on occasions of state, I will even crack out the exquisite Regency-era tea set I bought in England. (“This is for when the vicar comes to call,” the seller told me as he wrapped it in about a thousand layers of newspaper.) That tea set is one of my treasures, not only for the memories associated with it (even the parking ticket we got in Mayfair while we were attempting to ship it home is colored with a haze of fondness), but for the way it makes a moment feel like part of a long and interesting story. I never take up one of those delicate cups that I don’t sit a little straighter in my chair, measure my words a bit more carefully. One doesn’t talk twaddle, or leave sentences to languish unfinished over such a tea cup. I love the deep saucers, proportioned for sipping, and the impenetrable richness of cobalt blue fired under its glaze. I love the massive sugar bowl, rivaling even the furbelowed tea pot, and the fact that the slop bowl is every bit as beautiful as the rest of the set. But best of all, I love the fact that such art was created in the name of a quotidian ritual. While there’s little doubt in my mind that the Regency lady who first sipped tea from this set with her friends was probably not the one doing the washing up afterwards, there’s every reason to suppose—from the long and loving romance of the British with their tea—that this set was in constant use. (However did it come down to me intact? My Regency lady must have had a pearl of a scullery maid!) In an era of Styrofoam and Starbucks, it is extraordinary what a little simmering liquid in a bit of bone china can do to soothe the soul back into all that is yet lovely and gentle and gracious about life.

 the Regency tea set

the Regency tea set

This is not to deny the charm of mismatched cups and a sturdy, workaday pot, however. That’s just the beauty of tea: it can be as formal or as casual as one desires; the impromptu get-togethers at my kitchen table are just as dear in their own right as the planned gatherings in which that formidable Regency set presides. Tea is the beverage of conversation, and, as such, the only really necessary requirements for a “proper tea” are devoted time and someone to share it with. Of course, one may have a technically proper tea in solitude (as opposed to what Winnie-the-Pooh calls a “Very Nearly Tea,” which, as we all know, “is one you forget about afterwards”), but it’s missing something of the lustre of the original tradition.

And to honor that tradition, it is my joy to be sharing over at the Art House America blog today on the infinite pleasures of afternoon tea:

To take tea is to receive something; it is a gift of mindfulness, gentleness and grace. To partake in company is to merge with a great tradition of civilized communion which has its version in nearly every culture on earth…

Click here to read on–I would so love for you to join me there in celebration of this most esteemed beverage!

And I will be back tomorrow with a couple of my favorite teatime recipes, in addition to announcing the winner of the drawing for The Lifegiving Home.

IMG_1646 - Copy

The Lifegiving Home: a review

February 5th, 2016

review1

The rain was coursing in rivulets down the windows of my den, pounding on the roof with a rhythm that only emphasized the coziness within. Sarah Clarkson and I were on our second pot of Yorkshire Gold, accompanied by the boon companions of candlelight and good books. Our flow of conversation, suspended only for another sip of tea or another slice of Stilton and sharp apples from the plate near at hand, was punctuated with much laughter and many “Yes! Me, too!”s. We were plotting our Hutchmoot session, which was basically a formalized version of our all-over-the-place chatter about ideals and authors and homes and art, and Sarah was taking notes, reigning our thoughts into order. We were both so excited, so passionate about our topic, but there was one fundamental difference between us: I was heart-poundingly nervous at the very idea of standing before an audience delivering a talk, even on ideals I valued as highly as the ones under discussion. And the poised, sweet, eloquent Sarah was not.

Sure, Sarah’s parents faithfully prepared her and her siblings to present in public, which is an inestimable gift. And Sarah knew what I was to learn: speaking to a roomful of kindred spirits on things that kindle your soul awake is a wholly joyful and energizing experience.

But that day I was just nervous. I kept tripping over my fear as we talked, losing my train of thought in sudden fits of mental paralysis. I looked around the room, at the tea tray, the pretty china, the candlelight warm on the face of my friend, and knit my brow.

“I just wish we could take all of this with us!” I suddenly exclaimed.

Sarah cocked her head.

“You know,” I went on, “the coziness, the tea, the feeling that this is just a stimulating conversation between friends! If it were more tea party and less presentation, I think I could get over myself.”

Sarah smiled.

“I know what my mother would do,” she said.

And in that moment, though I hadn’t yet had the joy of meeting Sally Clarkson, I did, too.

Well, we did it: when we departed for Nashville a couple of days later, I had a basket packed with my favorite teapot, a creamer and sugar, two Blue Willow cups and a couple of starched linen napkins. During the delivery of our talk, we even had an embroidered cloth on the makeshift tea table before us. And though I’m still a bit dazed at the audacity of consuming a whole pot of tea in front of a roomful of tea-less people, it worked. Just as Sarah knew it would, and Sally, too, had she been there. For what we took into that session, what strengthened my heart and calmed my nerves, was more than just caffeine and china: it was the reassurance of all that is familiar, comforting, safe.

I had taken my dear Brown Betty teapot and my grandmother’s hand-monogrammed napkins to Nashville. But what I’d really taken was Home.

It was what Sarah would call an incarnational act: a gesture demonstrating, if only to ourselves, that things like tea and friendship and beauty and rapturous conversation and candlelight matter as conduits of eternal realities. All these intangible ideals we were talking about that day had been verbalized within the very tangible context of my den. This is not to say that a good conversation can’t happen in a sterile environment, but that the physical spaces we claim and craft around those we love feed the life lived within them.

This lovely, lost notion is what Sarah and her mother Sally celebrate, champion and articulate in their new book, The Lifegiving Home. It’s a beautiful read, affirming so many of my own ideals about what a real home is meant to be. Looking back over their journey as a family, Sally and Sarah share their memories and traditions as a very personal story built on a universal theme: home is an image of the ultimate “at-homeness” in Christ we are made for. Ideally, it is the place where identities are known and named; where hearts are tended as well as bodies; where dreams are born and cultivated, and from whence faithful lives are launched into the world.

I think the Clarksons would agree with Kahlil Gibran’s statement that our homes should be “not an anchor, but a mast;” not a burdensome showplace filled with things we don’t really need or want, but a lovingly crafted setting for God’s untamable story of our lives, crammed with memories and precious treasures of “each-otherness”. In such an economy, the simplest things come bearing gifts of very real, touchable grace: from a warm meal at the end of the day, to a safe place to refuge when the world turns a cold shoulder.

Although, they might gently add, home is an anchor. Home—the kind of home that Sally and Sarah describe in their book—is a place from which we soar into our own stories. But it is also a place to which we can always return, a shelter of ‘us’ from which we’ll never be turned away, no matter how tattered our wings might be. In this sense, home is infinitely more than a place, or even blood ties. But disembodied ideals don’t do flesh-bound humans much good–we need practical pegs to hang our convictions on. We’re made to incarnate the things we believe: the value of life and the redemptive pattern of love. Bread is good because it feeds our bodies, but if it is presented as a palpable expression of kindness and care, it nourishes our souls, too.

“The Incarnation,” writes Sarah, “takes the stuff of material existence, the physical world God made to nourish and delight and reveal Himself to us, and redeems it back from just stuff to an embodiment of God’s love, His uninhibited generosity.”

I couldn’t agree more. I am so glad that Sally and Sarah took the time to bring this book into such a heartsick, homesick world as ours. From the complementary perspectives of a mother who had a vision for home, and a daughter shaped by the home thus created, this really is a special look at the ways a family can embody their truths with the elements of everyday life. From feast days to ordinary days, life is meant to be lived with meaning, intention and purpose, and The Lifegiving Home gives us a lively and vivid picture of just how this might be accomplished. In the spirit of Edith Schaeffer’s great sacred-homemaking manifesto, Hidden Art, The Lifegiving Home is a celebration of all that it means to sanctify our spaces with love.

I had the chance to interview the Clarksons for The Rabbit Room earlier this week, and you can click here for an appetite-whetting taste of what their book is all about.

And it’s my great pleasure to be able to offer a copy of this wonderful book as a gift to my readers. Leave a comment describing the one thing about your place on earth that most speaks “home” to you, and I will draw a winner on Friday, February 12th at 12:00 pm EST.

 

Songless

February 1st, 2016

blackbird2

This essay was originally published on The Rabbit Room last summer, and is adapted from my plenary session, “Notebooks and Number 2 Pencils,” at the From Death Unto Life conference in Franklin, Tennessee last March.

I know what it means to soar.

When I was twelve years old, I got called out by my algebra teacher for writing stories in class. It was humiliating to have every eye in the room pinned in my direction—and it wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last. I couldn’t help it, though: that back corner desk by the window was too near the real world of birdsong and daydreams, and that story was too intoxicating. My bonneted heroine had just toppled over in a buggy, for heaven’s sake, driven, if memory serves me, by her deceptively demure rival. It was no time to be thinking of integers and variables (as if there ever was a time I willingly submitted my mind to such imponderables!). I still remember that notebook, purchased by my mother for the ostensible purpose of mathematical equations. But the thick, college-ruled paper was just too much for me: I almost saw the words on the page before my #2 pencil formed them. My heart jolted along in the wake of that tale, giddy as my girl in her careening buggy. Writing wasn’t work—how could it be? It was flying.

By the time I was seventeen, writing had become a much more serious business. The #2 pencils and college-ruled paper were now requisite, along with the addition of my dad’s law school-era thesaurus, held together by a rubber band and smelling, enchantingly, of must and sweet wordsmithery. (To this day I can’t open that battered Roget’s without a rush of association so tender it hurts.) But there was something more, something at once mystical and exquisitely practical: as a dreamy-eyed, home-educated high-schooler, I had accidentally discovered fertile valley of solitude. Suddenly rather thin in the friend department, but always one to occupy my own imagination with the utmost contentment, I found in the freedom of my new life ample space for the tending of a rich inner landscape. I walked around in a world of daydreams, stumbling from time to time against prosaic things, like math homework and Friday chores (indeed, “prosaic” was my term of utmost disdain in those days), but at night, I came into my own.

This is what writing looked like when I was seventeen: I would wait until the house fell silent, until the last light in the kitchen had gone out and I heard the scuff of my mother’s slippers retreating to the opposite end of our long, low ranch. Only then would I slip from my bed and steal across the room to the front window, where, beneath tall casements set with fake, 1950s lattice (which I happened to think the most beautiful, bowerly windows imaginable), reposed a particle board footlocker (which I found equally alluring, owing to the treasures housed within its humble frame). To throw back that lid was to let my stories out, friends with whom I shared some of the happiest—albeit most secretive—moments of my life. I had a reproduction copper chamberstick that my dad had given me, and lighting its taper and flinging wide the magic casement to the night air, my ritual was complete. I would kneel there for hours at my footlocker desk, scribbling and dreaming, unburdening my overfull heart of the lovely visions that had been accumulating throughout the day. I like to say that I got addicted to #2 pencils during that time (Empire Integrity, to be precise), but what I was really addicted to, of course, was the thrill of what happened when that pencil made contact with paper. The stories spun themselves, of moonlight and gossamer, laced with the spice of a spring evening or the heart-charging tempest of a blustery October night, and it was magic. The wings of my fledgling soul were tireless, immortal, unencumbered by the weight of self-consciousness which was to tangle later attempts. I mounted and swirled and dove amid the romance of words and ideas; swift as a skylark, exuberant as a mockingbird singing at sunset, I wrote like it was the one thing in the world I was made to do.

No one knew about my stories but my sister and, later, my best friend. Those two took my dreams at face value, a fact for which I owe them an eternal debt. I didn’t want to be a writer in their eyes—I was a writer, by the fairy birthright of ambition. I wrote by night, but I shared my tales with them by day, under the flowering fruit trees of April, or on a carpet of moss beside a merry brown creek. And they did me the honor of crying in the right places and refraining from negative comments which might have snatched me too early from the skies. (Only once did my sister take issue with one of my rather florid descriptions. “I don’t know that ‘flowers straining their silken ears for a familiar footfall’ is quite the best image here,” she said gently. Thank goodness I listened to her.) Apart from my sister and my friend, however, my stories were a closely guarded secret. I had some nebulous notion of sending them out into the world one day, so long as the world proved kind enough. But there was plenty of time for that—in the stories I read and the stories I wrote, things just had a way of working out for the dreamers of dreams.

The words of Longfellow were my rallying cry:

“How beautiful is youth! how bright it gleams
With its illusions, aspirations, dreams!
Book of Beginnings, Story without End,
Each maid a heroine, and each man a friend!”

Then I grew up, and learned how cold the world could be. I’m 40 years old now, and I’m still reeling from the shock that life is hard, and that there’s a cruel, sad spirit abroad which scorns our most sacred ideals. What’s more, I’m staggering around most days under the blow that art is hard. I’m haunted by that 17-year-old girl, with her flying pencil and her heart full of arrow-sweet visions. But here’s something I know to the core of my being: what that idealistic girl believed about God and the world and herself and art and story is the truest thing about me. To hang on to what I knew instinctively then, in the midst of what I know experientially now, is the battleground of my art and my faith. To whisper to a grieving world, even out of great pain, that God is not just as good as we hope He is, He’s better—that the innocence and beauty and goodness we’re all mourning the loss of is actually our rightful inheritance—well, that’s the worthiest reason I can think of to make this great, messy, arduous effort of stringing sentences together, one awkward word after another.

But it’s hard. And right now it’s really hard. Between a burden of circumstances and an accumulated inner crust of self-doubt, the words just aren’t there. I’m not flying—I’m not even gliding short distances: I’m frozen. I feel like a stunned bird that’s smacked into a window, too dazed to try my wings once more. I seriously doubt I would try them, but for a force that’s breathing the beauty of spring into my winter world: friendship. I’m humbled to say that God has sent one of His very sweetest singers to my side in this dark place, a kindred-compatriot who is not only one of the most brilliant souls I’ve ever encountered, she’s one of the truest. Scarcely aware of her own influence (as God’s most shining ones always are), she breeds beauty with a seemingly effortless touch—seemingly, for I’m aware of what it costs her. If I didn’t know her heart, I’d be tempted to envy her gift. But, as it is, she’s generous enough to take me into the counsel of her struggles, her feelings of paralysis, her fear. It was her idea, in fact, that we establish a weekly commitment to help pull one another out of a wordless slough. The routine is simple enough: every Friday, we send each other what we’ve written that week—unpolished, unfinished, and imperfect. We set small, creature-comfort penalties for missed exchanges, but they’re really unnecessary: a debt of honor trumps denial in my book every time.

And so, I’ve been sending her pitiful fragments, bits that never amount to anything, embarrassingly clunky snatches of prose. The intent of our arrangement is safe-keeping, not critique; much as I value feedback, what I need right now is someone I can trust with my messes. This all flies in the face of my sense of privacy and perfectionism, of course—which is exactly what it needs to do. I’ll never be unselfconscious about my writing at large if I can’t be unselfconscious with a beloved friend. Nevertheless, I don’t think I realized how stuck I really was until I started trying to produce something for her eyes. Things got so bad back in February that I cast aside the essay I was grinding over and started something new: a Petrarchan sonnet on writer’s block. (I know—I mean, what did I have to lose?) I sent it to her in pieces as I wrestled out each hard-won word. It’s not a good sonnet, but it helped me articulate the mess I was in:

Word-clipped, I flounder under frowning sky,
Stone-sealed in sullen cloud, from which no ray
Of pallid light escapes to ransom day.
Such useless wings! What passage can they buy
Upon this bone-chill of a breeze? I lie,
Breast-heaving, frantic eyes a-dart, and pray
The ragged crows that circle in the grey,
Or gather on bare branches with a call
So coarse it curdles hope itself, will fail
To spy my helpless state, too stunned to seek
Concealment. Come, heart! Come winter’s prey, small
Songless quarry of the cold: Up-stir! Avail
Yourself of flight! Alas, I am too weak.

I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but the effort of writing this poem was so great it felt like an ending, a swansong—until, suddenly, it wasn’t. For right into the midst of this chaos of scribblings and scratched out words and hair-pulling shone one of those ordinary miracles that hint at something terribly important. Midway through the painful birth of this sonnet, I stepped outside one morning into a world as raw and frozen as my own heart—but, overnight, the world had changed. Impossibly, implausibly, the air was full of music. The branches overhead were host to a crowd of lithe forms, darting, upstarting, and settling again, and they were singing the song of my summer heart.

I could hardly believe it, though it happens every year: the red-winged blackbirds always pass through our place on their migratory path, and I’m always surprised. Just when I think I can’t take one more minute of winter, I’ll open my kitchen door one day to a raucous anthem of warmth and youth and spring. It’s no coincidence that I fell in love with these birds at seventeen, on my first visit to an island that has come to be both haven of dreams and healing place—their music is an unfailing connection to a inner spring of essential “me-ness,” and a time and location that marked me for life.

But that February morning, they sang a wider song, of a strife and a mirth and a joy and a pain of which my solitary struggle was only a part. I thought of my Rabbit Room colleagues and community as I stood there in the cold, warmed by the great, glad, goodness of the various songs they were singing into the world. I thought of the authors who shaped my ideals; the musicians whose songs saved my faith again and again; the poets who emptied their dearly won jewels into my hands. There, in a delightful jumble, I thanked God for Lucy Maud Montgomery and The Innocence Mission and G. M. Hopkins and Andrew Peterson and Elizabeth Goudge and George MacDonald and Michael Card and Sheldon Vanauken. I thanked God for Pete Peterson, who believes in me enough to mark up my stories and point out my writer’s tics, and for dear old “Jack” Lewis, who told us all we’re not alone. In a flash of transcendence, that chorus of blackbirds imaged for me “a great cloud of witness”—a host of faithful ones singing a song so beautiful I longed to lift my voice among them, even if I’m more of a house wren among such larks and nightingales.

Weeks later, I sent my friend a companion to that bleak sonnet, an answering refrain springing from the courage her kinship had leant me. I know that sorrow, struggle, grief, and pain all serve the truest art, but what I’m seeing in this songless place is that we’re not meant to create in isolation. While the ritual of my dear old #2 pencils connects me by some deep instinct to the sweet, secret dreams of my youth, the desperation of experience connects me more than ever to the people in my life. It takes guts and grit and determination to be an artist—we all know that—and lots and lots of solitude. But it takes something more, something mystical as a moonrise and practical as a firm handclasp in the dark: it takes each-otherness.

And in that fellowship, we know that the soaring’s not the thing—the Song is.

What is this whispered force abroad, this rush
And whir of feathered life? The air is stung
With song: a lightning-liquid sweetness wrung
From scores of tiny throats. The dark wings brush
Athwart my gloom, each pinion marked with flush
Of flame, each note a summer hour among
A host of wintry days. Such music, young
From ancient time, and bearing yet the blush
Of spring’s primeval dawn, is goad so glad
It cracks the frozen air with joy and wakes
A sleeping secret in the earth. I rise,
Lift voice, lift bruiséd hope, enough to add
One note to that bright hymn their rapture makes—
And, having done, mount with them to the skies.

A Tour of the Shop

January 27th, 2016

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While it’s undeniably true that a dedicated artist is marked by a willingness to work anywhere, and under any conditions, the appeal of Virginia Woolf’s “room of her own” persists. Even though it’s not always possible, a dedicated space is certainly ideal when it comes to artistic endeavors.

One of the units in my Oxford writing class last fall took us on a virtual tour of modern day authors’ rooms. I was fascinated, particularly by the women’s spaces. They were generally, though not always, tidier than their male counterparts’ (God love them), some even to the point of austerity. Annie Dillard writes of the need to create in a room without windows, if possible, to minimize distraction. There’s way too much Anne Shirley in me, of course, to consider trying to write without ‘scope for the imagination,’ but I do see Dillard’s point. An artist has plenty of pulls on her attention from within her own head not to go courting them from without.

Windows or otherwise, though, I’ve always been enamored with artists’ spaces. Jo March had her garret. Jane Austen had her Chawton parlor. Edith Wharton had her lapdesk in her sumptuous bedroom at The Mount and Lucy Maud Montgomery had her room under the eaves at her grandparents’ Cavendish farm.

And the harder I’ve fought to carve out space for creativity in my own life, the more I’ve realized I needed just that: space.

I’ve had my little desk in the sitting room, by the window (of course!) overlooking the barnyard. And I’ve had my corner of an upstairs bedroom for my bookshop and bookbinding endeavors. But the first Low Door Press project was scarcely underway before I was completely out of room.  And I’m sure I don’t have to elaborate on the myriad distractions afforded by a window overlooking the barnyard!

In the early hours of this new year, Philip and I started talking about how we could better utilize our rooms in a way that would work with–not against–our current passions and projects. What resulted (among other things), was a “room of my own” of my dreams. A few weeks ago we started measuring, shuffling furniture, reallocating, re-purposing, and throwing things away, and though we both could use a massage at this point, we’re delighted with the way things have turned out.

A creative space is every bit as personal as the tender shoots and tendrils of creativity that emerge therein. But my husband has worked so hard to bring mine to life (and I’m so excited about it), that I could not resist a little virtual tour of my own. Welcome to my room, kind friends…

Philip bought me this old dipper in an antique store to remind me what it’s all about.

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This was my great-grandmother’s desk, and it’s been a trusty (and endearingly battered!) comrade from my girlhood. Here I’ve written papers, spun stories, scribbled in my journal and occasionally bowed my head in an obstinate bout of writer’s block. I love every scratch and watermark on its surface.

My desk is flanked by two very important likenesses. On the right is my great-great grandmother’s wedding portrait. She was lovely, and, from all accounts, the kindest and gentlest of women. What’s more, she’s my namesake.

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To the left is one of the dearest things I own: a watercolor of my Daddy, painted by my sister. She gave it to me this Christmas, and every time I see it I’m overwhelmed with how well she captured him. When I’m working at my desk I have only to glance up to remember how much he loves me.

I should mention here that other walls in my shop are graced with original works of art painted by my ridiculously talented sister, both for my limited-release run of Kilmeny of the Orchard, as well as my cherished upcoming project, Poesy. I’ve tried to keep those out of the pictures somewhat, so as not to spoil the surprise…

The book I keep on my desk is Carlyle’s Essay on Burns, simply because Daddy loved them both. And on top of that is a tiny Victorian brooch that Philip dug up in the yard with the metal detector–in the very shape of the Low Door swallow. (I couldn’t help thinking that was pretty significant.)

And in case anyone’s wondering, the framed picture on my desk is Davy Vanauken.

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Here’s one of the things I absolutely love about my room: there is not a single thing in it that does not belong and does not mean something to me. In a way, this space has been years in the making, as I’ve learned to prioritize creativity and make peace with my calling. But in another way, this room represents the work of generations. I’ve always felt a vivid connection to my heritage, and the men and women who have loved and worked and prayed and made sacrifices before my little appearance in history. Oft-repeated family stories have made my ancestors so alive to me that I cannot really contemplate my life out of the context of theirs, and I’m firmly convinced that a lot of the blessings I enjoy today are a direct result of the faithfulness of generations past. I also come from a family that keeps everything, so I’m blessed to have a few tangible connections to my people that make their story a part of my everyday life. Take this old chest, and the mirror above it, now appropriated as my book-packing station. It’s not much to took at, and every single drawer has its own unique requirements for opening and closing with (relative) ease. It was painted black somewhere along the way, and one of the feet comes off when you lift it. But this chest came out of the burning of Atlanta with my great-great-great grandparents during the Civil War. There’s even a crack down one side to tell the story of how it bounced off the oxcart and had to be retrieved in the midst of such fear and haste. I don’t wrap a single book to be mailed without at least a passing thought of those gritty, brave, determined people of mine.

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A few of my Daddy’s tools were just what I needed in my shop.

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I love all the “gear, and tackle, and trim” of bookbinding!

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A few Christmases ago, Philip surprised me with these gorgeous early-19th century book presses. The one on the right is made with massive pieces of solid oak, and I think the one on the left is black walnut. Maybe they need names…

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Every bookshop needs a beautiful bookshop dog. (Meet Bonnie, if you haven’t been properly introduced. She’s the pink–ahem, blue merle–of perfection.)

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This picture was taken before I listed those beautiful, hand-bound George MacDonald books last week, several of which have already sold. But I do have a few left, if you care to have a look…

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My husband graciously donated not one, but two of his worktables to the service of my bookshop. (You should have seen us lugging these things up two flights of stairs!) And the only things we had to buy were a length of lamp cord for the chandelier (which was waiting patiently in the attic) and the cork “idea board” in the corner.

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A few England treasures on the mantelpiece. I found that little collection of Scott in a bookshop in Devon.

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I set up my watercolor station at the west-facing window. This table belonged to my Daddy’s grandmother (whose photograph resides on the bookcase nearby), and I remember it from my grandmother’s front parlor. The oil lamp was one of the few things saved from my aforementioned namesake’s house (along with her Bible and her cookbook–and, yes, I have those, too!) when it burned in 1918.

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Thank you so much for indulging me in this little tour! (I think it wore Bonnie out.)

And…you know what this all means, right? It’s time to get those presses rolling again!

I’m so excited I can hardly stand it. Stay tuned for news of Poesy!