Archive for 2009

For the Commemoration of the Holy Innocents

Monday, December 28th, 2009

The Coventry Carol

15th Century

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I spent four slow hours cleaning the house today, sprucing up and gently setting to rights, refreshing candles and putting away gifts. But we’re by no means ‘done’. I’ll be sweeping pine needles and picking up fallen holly berries for another good week and a day, for we keep Christmas right up to the very chime of midnight on Twelfth Night around here. ;)

Wishing you all a very lovely Fourth Day of Christmas!!

The Light Shineth in the Darkness

Saturday, December 26th, 2009

DSC_6259It’s been a day of gorgeous indolence, a true gift after all the glad hustle and bustle of the weeks previous. I sat on the couch by the fire and nursed the cold I sustained through late nights and early mornings and too much sugar and running out barefoot into the frost-touched grass for just one more branch of holly…and did nothing but catch up on my journal and think long and lovely thoughts.

My heart has been gloating over all the sweet bounty of the season today, and the goodness of God in the midst of it all. I have among the jewels in my memory chest the vision of thirty something-odd of the best beloved folks packing into our house on Christmas Eve; the bright image of a host of little faces screwed up with abandon over the serious business of a peppermint stick in an orange and the poignant stab of my thirteen year-old nephew’s polite but unprecedented, “No thank you,” when I offered him one–the first to break rank with childhood. I have the memory of a walk with my Daddy and the dogs between Christmas breakfast and Christmas lunch, and of playing old Christmas duets with my brother at the piano and making a merry mess of it and laughing at ourselves all the way. I have the gift of a sister home from away and a mother who cries on Christmas night because it DSC_6778was all so fun and we were all together again.

So today I’ve just been soaking it in, not too sorry for the aforementioned cold that enforces an already validated pause. I just love the day after Christmas–and this was a perfect one. There was an absolutely majestic sunset tonight–we watched it over our tea with growing delight as it deepened from a glitter of gold among the pines through every shade of apricot and orange into a fiery splendor of crimson, spanning the pale sky in streaks of wild color. The finest sunset of the season, a glory that reminded us with joy that this was just the second of twelve glad days. And then, just as the last flame had vanished from the sky and the animals patiently gathering in the barnyard told us it was time to pull on our overalls and get into our coats for the nightly ritual of bedding down, the lights flickered and went out, leaving us in the candlelight of the two tapers on the coffee table and the cheery glow of the Advent wreath in the window.

“This should be interesting,” Philip grinned. “And kind of neat.”

With one of my candle lamps and the two holly-trimmed hurricane lanterns that had graced the front walk, we made our way across the darkened lawn with Caspian frisking in the shadows and a waxing gibbous sifting a thin dusting of silver over our way. The animals all greeted us at the gate as usual. But they were unnerved by the darkness of their comforting barn. And the sheep, at least, were none too sure of the flickering lights we bore to dispel it. We hung the lanterns in the stalls as we worked, from the hay drops and perched atop mineral boxes, and I sang and spoke low to the frightened darlings as they alternately followed me as a body and dispersed in sudden panic. The goats were fine once they realized that grain was still forthcoming and hay was in the offing, and they munched some of their Christmas apples with as unperturbed a satisfaction as ever, their breath showing in fragrant puffs by the light of the lantern. But the sheep were too terrified to enjoy their evening repast, dropping some of their loved apples down into the straw untasted to be trampled underfoot by the others.

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What a parable, I thought. The Light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not–I’ve always thought that one of the most heartbreaking verses in the Bible. A Light not only incomprehensible, but feared.  I’ve heard it mentioned again and again how the first words out of an angel’s mouth when greeting a human being was always, ‘Fear not,’ and watching my poor frightened flock I saw an image of the terror of the unknown and unfamiliar, even couched in perfect safety.

I knelt down in their midst, calling to them softly by name, soothing and stroking as they drew near, a ring of lovely ovine faces illumined by the glow of the lanterns, their tender eyes and smooth velvet noses blooming out of the murkiness beyond. And then I was struck by another image altogether, a picture so precious I caught my breath and smiled. This is what the barn must have looked like on the night of Jesus’ birth, perhaps the light of an oil lamp scattering the shadows of the stable rude and lighting up the faces of the friendly beasts that gazed with wonder alongside shepherds and Mother and Father. That sweet tilt of Hermia’s head, so gently touched with gold, went to my heart, as did the soft muffle of Benedick’s breath in my ear and the rustle and clucking of a hen in the next stall. It all just gave me such a moment of transport, a flicker of knowing.

Let us go then, even unto Bethlehem…

The barn was beautiful by candlelight. And even though the babies protested noisily when we took the flickering lanterns away (any light was better than none!) we came merrily back across the lawn, lanterns swinging, to the music of utter silence in the world around us. Wrapped in an almost heavenly calm.

I was even a little sorry when the lights came on a few hours later. ;)

And so, Merry Second Day of Christmas to you all!! And here’s a little wassailing song for the day–the names of each family’s farm animals and household were traditionally inserted into the carol, and so we had fun with this one last Christmas. You can listen for the names of some of our friendly beasts…and there’s even a mention of Philip! ;)

Gloucester Wassail

Traditional English

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Day of days

Monday, December 21st, 2009

Christmas Eve, 2007

adapted from my journal

On Christmas Eve morning I was up at five. I wondered if any of my neighbors were astir at that hour, but all the other houses through the trees were dark. It was my own, private, precious hour with Jesus—on a day when His humanity is nearer to my heart than any other. I would not have traded it for silver and gold. It shines in my heart yet as an unspeakable gift from Him—I have no words.

When I first stepped into my dark kitchen that morning a silver tide of moonlight was pouring in from the windows above the sink. The moon itself, a tremendous and luminous sphere, was sailing calmly through an untroubled sky of velvety blue, with a single star—the star of the morning—waiting attendance upon the regal passage. It was so beautiful—the light all tangled up in the branches of the water oak outside and casting its pale glory over frost-encrusted yard and pasture and silent winter garden—that I literally caught my breath. It hurt me to look at it, and yet I could not get enough. I lit the gas jet under the tea kettle and just stared and stared. I hated to turn on the lights in the den to banish such a radiance.

DSC_7195After my devotions, I fell to setting the tables, moving about as quietly as I could, yet with a growing mirth at what day the coming dawn was hailing and what happiness would soon be filling these rooms and sitting at these tables. As I worked, I was blessedly conscious of what was happening outside—the moon dropped almost reluctantly into the west, behind the great oak at the corner of the pasture by the cemetery, and from behind the woods to the east the day began to spring. The sky paled to a breathless blue, the gate of the day grew rosy, and soon a glory of another kind was spilling over treetops and lawn and setting all the frost crystals to glittering like so many diamonds. It was utterly pure and beautiful, my own special possession. I always say that I love a cloudy Christmas Eve best, and a gloriously sunny Christmas Day—but I’d not send back the sweet splendours my Lord sent this year.

And so, just before ten, I got into my new red dress—finished at the characteristic eleventh hour—and dashed into the kitchen, just in time for Once in Royal David’s City, broadcast live right into my den all the way from King’s College in Cambridge. That sacred moment always makes the world seem smaller and our beloved England so much closer to us in time and space. We sat on the sofa hand in hand and listened, breathless, as the airy strains grew into a full choir and finally swelled with the organ and audience and what seemed like all the combined worshippers of ages past. I listened, as I always do, with a catch in my throat and tears in my eyes, to the Bidding Prayer, particularly at the thought of all those dear ones of my own “who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light”. And then it was time to turn the sausage and flip on the coffee pot and check on the bacon sizzling away. And just as I was tucking the plum pudding back into its buttery mold for one last steam, the doorbell rang, and our merry old Christmas Eve party had begun…

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It was my brother-in-law and his wife, but there was a whole parade of cars behind them: my family, Philip’s family and friends that are such family no ties of blood could make them nearer and dearer. And soon the rooms rang with “Hello! Hello!” “Merry Christmas!” “Oooh—don’t you look pretty!” “Christmas Gif’!” and “Where can I put this?” There seemed to be children everywhere—which is fitting as this day is for them above all others at our farm-in-the-city. One of them came up and asked me if there were to be peppermint sticks in oranges this year. I smiled knowingly and replied that they should go and take a look at the coffee table in the den where two crystal bowls boasted the coveted treats—“But you’ll have to wait till after breakfast!” In the twinkling of an eye, as it were, my home was full of laughter and the snap and crackle of open fires, fragrant with cider and the pudding that was steaming away and the traditional sausages…

Philip asked the patriarchs to say the blessing and I thought that was quite fitting and sensitive of him. As I looked around the dining room, filled to capacity with the progeny of these two men, I had to smile to myself at what they would have thought when they first met at college all those years ago if they could have looked into the future and seen such a gorgeous (and enormous—35 of us!) assemblage. And I smiled, at the same time, at the sweet sounds of Ding Dong Merrily in High pouring out of my radio in that quiet moment, all the way from England…

I spent most of the breakfast bustling about, making sure everyone had tea and coffee and juice, catching a five year-old cherub who threatened to topple out of her chair at the childrens’ table, lingering to laugh at an old and loved story at the adults’ table, and sitting down in my place at the ‘kids’ table’ just about the time I needed to pop back up again and take out the pudding. But I love it, of course. Every minute of it. And when brunch had been dispensed with and the pudding slipped miraculously from its antique mold, we warmed some brandy in a skillet and Philip called all the children into the kitchen to see the great event—after igniting it I poured the blue elven flame over the pudding on its silver holly trimmed tray amid gasps and exclamations—it was quite lovely!—and Philip bore it in triumph into the dining room to a chorus of delighted voices and a spontaneous burst of applause.

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Then all of the children—from the smallest to the tallest—came asking for their oranges and peppermint sticks, and to look around at all those beautiful girls in their smocked dresses and handsome little men looking like pint-sized versions of their Daddys in sweater vests, intent upon a pleasure so simple as sucking the juice of an orange through a soft peppermint ‘straw’, one might think it was a vision straight from the pages of Washington Irving, or the great Dickens himself!

After all the excitement of the pudding and the crackers had died down and the jokes had been told and re-told and the charms passed off to admiring children who thought they were treasures indeed, I settled down in the hall with the ladies for a much-appreciated cup of coffee and a good chat while the men and children went out in the yard to play and to say ‘Hello,’ and ‘Merry Christmas!’ to the chickens. When I chanced to step out on the back porch it was a sight to warm the heart for days to come—a lovely day, as the dawn had promised, lightly overcast with clouds scudding across a wintry sky, chill enough for all the lovely velvet Christmas coats to bloom out in all the colors of jewels, and a pale December sunlight falling with a loving touch upon all the bright heads. They were running around, screaming and laughing, chasing and being chased by the adults, paper crowns askew and baby dolls dangling by the arms–such a beautiful tableau of innocent happiness. I loved it. I just stood there, leaning over the rail and taking it all in. And then Philip got the idea that each one of them should have a chance at ringing the old school bell at the back of the house in honor of Christmas and a great pealing ensued which drove me from my post and down into the yard with them all to take part in the fun.

I gave everyone their favors when it was time to go—paper cones filled with fudge and caramels—and the children were so excited. How refreshing it is in this age of materialism to see children thrilled over peppermint sticks in oranges and bits of paper and tinsel crammed with homemade candy!

As the dusk fell upon our darling day and a purple and golden twilight descended, the light of the fire and the Christmas tree and my little Advent wreath in the window shone out with an ever-increasing warmth and I longed, oh so fiercely!, to make time stop for even a moment or two. We had done our favorite day homage, old traditions had been honored and new ones introduced for consideration. Children had been exalted to the guests of honor in tribute to our blessed Child-Savior and adults had celebrated the ties that He had forged. The whole day had been a Christmas gift from the Host of the feast. An invitation to the children and the childlike to enter into His joy.

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A gilt-edged shadow of the happiness that lies in store for us all when faith is made sight.

Thanks be to God.

Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming

15th Century German

My Dancing Day

Monday, December 14th, 2009

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Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day

Traditional English

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Dancing with my Daddy, Christmas 2005

photography credit Frank Gibson, 2005

Waiting Days

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

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“It was a labor of love,” she told me, coming to my door on a November day and handing me a tissue-wrapped package, wrinkling her nose with a smile.

There’s no doubt that it was. A host of paper leaves, hand-tinted in varying hues. Tiny pictures she knew I’d love, dusted with glitter and hidden behind a month’s worth of of tiny doors. Untold hours of careful work. And the joy we’ve had in it has been measureless–Philip and I have taken turns each day folding back the stiff flaps, revealing the scrap of enchantment within.

I haven’t had an Advent calendar since I was a child, but I will never forget  the tingle of excitement when it was my day to turn back a well-creased paper door or window and peek in at the angel or shepherd or star within, dearly familiar and yet always shimmering with a Christmas magic that made it new again. The waiting seemed endless–the long December days stretched out into impossibility and Christmas Eve was a miracle itself, emerging radiant and triumphant from a month of anticipation.

It comes around more quickly than I’d like to admit now that I’m an adult. But the sweet expectation lingers–is sweeter than ever, perhaps, for I know now what it really means to wait. The beautiful expectancy of Advent throws a reflected light over the waiting days of our own lives. All my desire is before Thee, we whisper. And ranged in the shadows of time that surround us on all sides, a multitude without number sends up an echo that has not been silenced since God’s promise first taught man to hope in His coming. His coming to the human race. His coming to each of us in the intimacy of our immediate need.

The centuries of yearning behind the fulfillment of our Lord’s appearance have myriad small incarnations in the hearts of God’s people. We’re all waiting on something. Waiting for God to fix a problem. Waiting for Him to give us what we want. Waiting to see Him face to face. It’s tempting to let the season underscore what we still don’t have, even though another year has rolled around. But how much richer, I am learning, to embrace the stark solemnity of the great universal waiting for the Messiah and to find a parable of it in my own desires.

God doesn’t give us the big picture all at once. He opens one window at a time, gives us glimpses of the glories under-girding  the everyday.

Like a glitter-dusted angel’s wing or a cross-shaped star behind a paper door.

Even so, come Lord Jesus.

The Holly Bears a Berry…

Sunday, December 6th, 2009

DSC_0022My home smells like gingerbread and fir once more, and a gloriously-spangled tree, ‘the prettiest ever,’ has joined the Advent wreath in the den. My few ‘permanent’ decorations—the crèche on the Empire chest, the mantle swag of vintage glass balls, the stockings above the kitchen fireplace, have taken up their yearly residence, and yesterday I put some festive touches on the barn. Philip watched me with a grin on his face as I swung the paper chain along the center beam and hung little red wire cones from the posts filled with silky silver-green branches of long-leaf pine. I knew what he was thinking—but I had decorated in much the same way last year and everything was just out of reach of my impish Nubian goats, Puck and Pansy. Surely they couldn’t have grown that much since last Christmas!

I wasn’t in the barn when Puck and Co. came running in from the pasture for their mid-afternoon siesta, but Philip was, and he nearly doubled over with laughter at the sight. Puck took in the paper chain and the delectable treat of pine boughs dangling overhead in one glance, and in a moment more the ‘decorations’ were gone. He did share a bit with his sister, Pansy, Philip tells me, and Sebastian the sheep managed a nibble or two. But in Puck’s mind, Christmas has really come again, with the goat version of sugarplums sprouting magically from the ceiling. ;)

DSC_7915Caspian has taken up his vigilant guard at the foot of the Christmas tree, just to make sure that none of those gingerbread men, you know, jump off. And the five house cats, Josie, Lucy, Oliver, Pip and Wemmick each have their own favorite ornament, and they show their love by batting it off the tree and scuttling it around the floor between their paws. Maudie and Balliol, the barn kitties, doubtless remember the birds’ tree in the yard from last year, for they were only too eager to lend their aid as Philip strung the colored lights over the cedar along the fence. I’m going to have to hang the birdseed pinecones really high this year!

Next week the ‘candy shop’ will open in my kitchen and Philip will doubtless come home at night to a very floured and sugar-dusted wife. But what loved recipes—every one a memory-laden favorite: Mince-pie cookies! Martha Washington candies! Russian tea cakes and ginger hearts! Butter toffee and caramels! I’ve gotten to the point after ten Christmases in my own home that I can’t even look at new recipes for I’m not willing to give up anything that I make every year in exchange. ;) And there is absolutely nothing more satisfying to me than gifting my loved ones with the fruits of my kitchen—whether around my table, nibbling cookies by my fire, or by way of presents themselves.

DSC_9573The week after next is when I will begin ‘bringing in the greens’, decking the chandeliers and the pictures on the walls with crowns of holly and ivy. I am very old-fashioned about most things, and Christmas in particular, and waiting to decorate with live greenery, which our Southern climate supplies in such munificence, is all part of the glad anticipation of the Advent for me. There is something so very immediate in the prickle of a holly leaf, and I cannot help but think of the old legend that tells how it was used for the crown of thorns, and that it never bore its scarlet berries until the drops of blood flowed from the Savior’s brow. I love the keenness of cedar boughs, all the more vibrant after a good hard frost or two, and their fragrant promise of ever-living things. And the loyal glossy green of the boxwood, twined into wreaths or thin circlets atop my hurricane globes, speaking to me of love and friendship and of the dear friend from whose garden I clipped it.

Christmas is the brightest and best season of the year for me, the most joyous time of all at our dear little farm-in-the-city. No matter what the year has held, no matter what challenges and longings and frustrations may lay behind us in the months that have gone without recall, the blessed now of Christmas returns with its Glory and its Joy just as fresh and amazing as that first starry night in Bethlehem. The miracle of God with us overwhelms me more every single year. It is the life in all sweet the trappings and memories that I love about this season and the lodestar that lures me on into an inscrutable but irresistible future when this Christmas is but a memory itself. I always feel, in the midst of it all, that the scrim twixt the temporal and the eternal is thinner this time of year than at any other, and that the unspeakable realities on the other side are hovering so near, near enough to touch had I but the eyes to see them. Angels’ wings whispering close at hand; the ineffable fragrance of a Rose newly-sprung; the clear, piercing light of the Day Star and the sudden gilding of dawn over a frozen landscape.

coneBut as I love it best, I feel I am more subject to temptations unique to this season and unique to me. The pull to over-do, to live beyond the means of time and energy that God has given me. To forget—even momentarily, but no less tragically—what we’re celebrating in the drive to do it honor. To exchange happy bustle for ‘huffing about’. I am determined not to waste a blessed moment of it this year—but I know that I can’t do it alone. I need my friends to remind me. I need my husband to raise his eyebrows with a smile when I talk about adding one more thing to the irresistible list of projects and Christmasy things I want to do.

I need Jesus. To keep me grounded, centered. Starry-eyed, if you will, as I sit in contemplation of a glittering Christmas tree or at my piano lingering over the carols I love best with a lump in my throat. To keep my heart so tender to the staggering verities of His Word and of what this is all about that I still weep over the same verses in my Bible that have stabbed me every year with joy and pain. To keep the wonder of a Love I still cannot fathom though I’ve been steeped in it my whole life.

To keep me. So that I might keep Christmas.

God bless you all as you welcome Him this season, in your homes and in your hearts.

And here’s another little gift, in the same vein as before. Two songs that I love dearly. I hope that you enjoy them.

Now the Holly Bears a Berry

Sans Day Carol, Cornish Traditional

Noel Sing We

15th Century English Carol

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All Hayle to the Days

Sunday, November 29th, 2009

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Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Collect for the First Sunday in Advent, The Book of Common Prayer

It’s official. I made my Advent wreath this afternoon of ferny, fragrant cedar, and I hung it with red satin ribbons from its hook in the den.

And the most beautiful and blessed Season of all is upon us once more.

And as a little gift to my Gentle Readers, I’d like to share a few of the old and loved songs that Philip has recorded over the years of my friends and me singing together in the parlor. Not polished or perfect, by any means, but merely sisters in Christ delighting together in the sweet kinship of music and love for our Lord, whose glorious appearing we now have the joy of celebrating once more…

All Hayle to the Days

English traditional

Love Came Down

Christina Rossetti, 1885

God bless you all as we embark upon the sweet anticipation of Advent…

From Whom All Blessings Flow

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

It’s the day before Thanksgiving. One of my very favorite days in the whole year. My kitchen, like so many others across the country (and around the world—I have friends in England, France and Sarajevo celebrating this year) is a scene of happy industry, the loved and familiar scents of sweet potatoes and simmering cranberry conserve mingling with that of the bright little fire on my hearth. It’s the sameness, the comfort of traditions and the precious times that they represent that make all these rituals revive my heart with the joy of a homecoming bird. The stirring of the great vat of sweet potato soufflé, so gorgeous with brown sugar topping it almost counts as dessert, which will feed around 25 loved ones over two separate days of feasting. The careful pouring of ruby-red conserve into waiting jars and the half-anxious process of the canning itself. The Karo syrup and the sticky sweetness of pecan pie and the glorious mess at the end of it all.

But as much as my homemaker’s heart adores all the sweet trappings of preparation, I know just how easy it is to get so caught up in getting ready for the holiday that I forget—even momentarily—what it’s all about. What specifically I have to give thanks for this year. And to Whom I owe it.

It’s for that reason I’m pausing by the fire this morning, while the sweet potatoes are cooling and the sauce is turned low on the back of the stove, to take stock of the year’s mercies. I’d love for you all to join me, to pour out a cup of tea or a mug of cider, and muse over our blessings.

I’ll start:

~I am so thankful for cold dog noses and warm, purring cats. For a barn-full of friendly beasts and for fresh eggs and soft wool and even for Margot the rooster who hates my guts. I’m thankful for the beauty and the joy that all of these animals bring to our lives. I’m grateful for the supreme compliment of their affection and trust. They are truly ambassadors of their Creator and ours.

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~I’m thankful for my friends. The longer we have walked together, the more tears we have dried and the more laughter we have shared, the more humbled I am by their steadfast love. The friends that fed us for weeks and bought my groceries and tidied my house when I had surgery. That did my laundry when I sprained my ankle. That will housesit for a month together and never so much as cross my threshold empty-handed. The beloved companions with whom there is never enough time, no matter how late we stay talking by my fireside. The ones a dear older friend once called ‘Jesus with skin on’. The hands and the feet and the loving, tender heart of our Lord. I could try for the rest of my life and never adequately express my love and thanks.

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~I am grateful for the lovely autumn light that slants low through the pines from the west and fills my rooms with the gilding of an old masters painting. For sudden violets in the grass on a November day and for scarlet berries ripening on the hollies. For diamond-shot dawns and cedar trees materializing out of the mist and the delicate shadows of leaf patterns on the wall. For prickly chestnuts and fat brown acorns and the chattering squirrels that love them. For winging birds and ‘wooly bears’ and apricot skies and the hand of the Artist everywhere I look.

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~I am grateful for my husband. I can’t even begin to say how much—both to him and to God, who for some reason chose to bless me with him. I am thankful for the way that he supports me in my dreams, and dreams them right alongside me, alternately affirming me and picking me up out of the mire where I’ve face-planted with “I can’t”, as the situation might require. Life with him is a beautiful adventure, an Open Road. I’m thankful for God’s gift, that put my best dreams to shame.

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Well, now that I’ve begun, I could literally go on all day. But that conserve won’t make itself. ;) I’d love to hear from you, though . Leave a comment over the weekend, if you wish, and let me know what you are thanking God for this year.

Now thank we all our God,
with heart and hands and voices,
who wondrous things hath done,
in whom his world rejoices;
who from our mother’s arms
hath blessed us on our way
with countless gifts of love,
and still is ours today.

Martin Rinkhart, 1586-1649

Sweet Delights

Friday, November 20th, 2009

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It is the burnished season. At last.

The sheep and goats amble across the pasture these late afternoons in a wash of amber and the trees around the house are clothed with rainbows, green and crimson and scarlet, tawny gold and flaming orange, blended into a dreamy patchwork amid the thin blue vapors of woodsmoke and autumn mists. Sunday night when we came out of Evensong the moist air was spiced with incense that had wafted out with us as we opened the huge wooden doors, blent bewitchingly with the sweet evanescence of elaeagnus that was abroad, and the ginger-colored leaves on the branches about the cathedral were lit from beneath in the sun’s last slanting rays till they glowed like living coals.

It’s one of my very favorite times, this mad second youth of the year, more beautiful in its maturity than even the careless loveliness of April and May. And definitely more poignant in all its brave show. Already the golden leaves of ginkos and hickories have made a yellow carpet upon the lawns of my town, and tonight’s rain will assuredly rob the great silken-trunked crepe myrtle outside my window of its last clinging jewels. But what a lovely autumn it’s been. And what a stirring of anticipation as we lean closer and closer towards the brightest and best days that the calendar affords!

This past weekend we had the joy of celebrating all of the wealth and abundance that this season represents: the staggering kindnesses of God, the mercies of both shadow and shade, the harvest of a year’s worth of faltering paces towards the heaven we’ve all been made for. In company of ‘fellow sojourners’ that are like family and with the bright festivity of the holiday season beckoning past resistance, we gathered in the home of beloved friends for an evening of music and fellowship and autumnal fare. The Michaelmas Party we called it, more in the spirit of the Oxford term schedule than the actual feast day (which is in September, as any British readers would doubtless smilingly point out to these American Anglophiles!;)).

My friend’s home was soft with candlelight and firelight and we were greeted by the aroma of mulled wine and spices, evocative of so many other glad and golden hours spent in one anothers’ company. The table was spread with seasonal offerings: poached pears, pumpkin cakes, aromatic cheeses, a cobbler plump with berries—just the sight of which was a feast for the eyes. And the rooms themselves were lovelier still. Flaming maple leaves nearly incandescent with light and color bloomed out from cupboards and shelves. Grapevines were wound with artful abandon over the mantle and holly berries rubbed shoulders with auburn foliage in an apt image of the overflow of joy from one season to the next. This was the Opening Ceremonies—“The kickoff for Christmas!” It was exchanged like a greeting through the rooms with all the joy of children. The tenderly-sweet overture. The Commencement.

And when those of us who had stepped out into the clement night heard the bells chiming the hour in the church tower down the street, our hostess informed us that it was time for the evening’s entertainment to begin. Our violinists ranged from nine years old to professional. A classical guitarist literally transported us all to Turkey with his spell-binding rendition of Domeniconi’s Koyunbaba during which you could have heard a pin drop in the room, we were all so breathless. And my friends and I performed some of our beloved English songs, Purcell and Byrd and that ilk, with a Palestrina thrown in for good measure. One of our rounds, while lighthearted enough a game of musical ‘catch’, touched a winsome chord in the light of the year’s hardships:

Let’s sing and cheer our hearts tonight!

We sum up all delights in one, in sweet delights of time and tune.

I will not count the care times bring—

I’ll only count my time to sing.

Our friends’ little daughter looked like a subject of Sargeant’s in her long velveteen dress and hair flowing in waves down her back, and the seriousness of her still-childishly lined face as she worked her bow with genuine skill and precision gave me a turn. How could that be the little baby brought over in a Moses basket to one of the first dinner parties Philip and I hosted just after we were married? It was a pluck at my sleeve. A not-so-subtle hint that, as Jo March would say, ‘change comes just as surely as the seasons, and twice as fast’.

We closed our portion of the program with a Burgundian carol entitled Oxen and Sheep, simply because it was so lovely we couldn’t help it. ;) And the lullaby-like All My Heart:

Love him who with love is yearning!

Hail the star that from far

Bright with hope is burning!

When the tapers had burned low and the party was reduced to the few clinging round the hearth, we played charades at the request of our little velveteen-clad violinist, and laughed till the tears came at the ensuing antics. And Philip and I stayed even later—well into the wee sma’s—gathering punch cups and coffee cups and silver forks, reminiscing in the kitchen and relishing the ‘sweet delights’ of friends loved past expression and times that make life the beautiful journey Home that it is.

“The goldenest of golden times,” I told my friend the next day.

Touched with the gilding of autumntide itself.

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Fellow Sojourners

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

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(originally published 2005 in Inkblots magazine)

It was five years ago this October that I casually tossed my new Victoria magazine on the coffee table and then snatched it back up again.  Invite Your Book Club to Tea proclaimed luxurious scrolls above a picture of a tastefully laid table by the fire and promises of worthy recipes within. I stared for a moment, an idea working in my mind.  It was just what I needed, what my soul was craving.  Only just emerging from the cocoon of the newly married, with my sister in New York and my two best friends on opposite sides of the globe, I had a distinct need for feminine companionship. Without further delay I called up three kindred spirits and asked them if they’d like to start a book club.

Two weeks later we were eating soup at my kitchen table and discussing Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey.  Cherishing a personal penchant for almost any book with heroines in long skirts however drab (skirts, that is), I was surprised and yet stimulated to hear my friends take issue with Bronte’s admittedly mousy leading lady.  “I liked it,” I managed to submit amid the lively repartee, recalling gentle scenes of English country life and pity for Agnes’ un-chosen lot.  But I was overridden.  In the annals of our book club, Agnes Grey went down as a book that we decidedly did not like.

The next October found us with eight members and a name: The Ladies’ Literary Society, or LLS.  Several months previous a gem of an Elizabeth Goudge, Pilgrim’s Inn, had prompted such an outpouring of sympathetic delight that one of the members had shared her thoughts with the rest by way of a small essay and accompanying sketch.  And thus the Notes were born.  Beyond minutes, these little handcrafted leaflets were to describe in glowing terms the precious details that made each meeting a day that we never wanted to forget—from depictions of table settings and flowers, to a mouth-watering portrayal of dainties and morsels the hostess had provided, as well as a never-to-be omitted review of the book.

“They’re for posterity,” Jenijoy insisted with a gleam of laughter in her eyes.  “Someday our Notes will find their way into a museum, and when someone wants to write a book about us they’ll be unearthed with great rejoicing.”

“Well, they’re alright,” proclaimed one of our mothers upon perusing my flowery reminiscences of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, “if you’re living in the nineteenth century.”  But the effect was intentional.  Apart from an occasional foray into the WWII era, our choices have always seemed to rest heavily upon books with two striking features: they are old, and they are English.

We celebrated our first anniversary in 2001 with a golden picnic in a friend’s pasture.  With just the right touch of chill in the air to make sweaters welcome and a dazzling blue sky overhead we spread our repast upon a well-worn quilt: roast chicken flanked with chrysanthemums and bundles of herbs served from beneath a silver venison dome, hot peanut soup and pumpkin muffins, with baked apples in little glass jars and lashings of fresh whipped cream for dessert.  Cut glass plates and antique flatware were the order of the day and linen napkins were spread daintily across tweed-clad knees.  At the four corners of the blanket our hostess had laid bouquets of autumn flowers, wild asters and goldenrod and stalks of wheat.

“Oh, how I needed this,” Laura sighed, tucking a wayward brown curl behind her ear.

Louise poised her teacup meditatively.  “We all did.”

It was the first truly beautiful thing we had known in a post-September 11th world and the loveliness of the autumn day and the comfort of friendship had worked their charms upon each of us, loosening the iron bands of anxiety about our minds and whispering that life was still exquisite and that God was still in his heaven.

That afternoon I realized as never before that the purpose of our dear Society transcended the common love of books.  It was a knitting of hearts, a safe haven for ideals in a world more uncertain than we had once thought.  Our mutual passion for good books had brought us together and sealed our friendships, but it was our shared faith and our sisterhood in Christ that made the time we spent in each other’s company an eternal treasure.  We have since wept together over one’s bereavement; we’ve spontaneously prayed for one another in moments of trial and perplexity; we’ve laughed till our sides ached and dished out all manner of unsolicited advice.  And ignoring the clock as best we can on the third Thursday of each month we put away gallons of hot tea—an essential ingredient for invigorating talk—and wax eloquent on the glories of Tennyson or the absurdities of P.G. Wodehouse.

In the spring we become a quasi-garden club, discussing the growing of foxgloves or the propagation of shrubs from cuttings with as much solemnity as we would the nuances of a Jane Austen novel.  Invariably there is a collection of newly-potted plants by the hostess’ door in token of promises made at the previous meeting.  And the sprays of wild ferns or masses of violets that grace the table always represent offerings from one or another’s yard.  Rachel is famous for her English roses; I have a coveted flowering quince; Jenijoy is the first to procure winter honeysuckle and the earliest April irises.

But, at the very core, we are a book club.  The knowledge of my wonderful friends enjoying the very same book as me at the very same time has added a whole new dimension to the pleasures of reading.  I wonder what Amanda thought of that scene on the moors…Won’t Rebecca love that philosophical passage…I imagine Lori has some striking observations on that subplot… To me, the satisfaction of a loved book is only complete when I can share it with those that I love.  I do not believe that the adventure of reading was meant to be a wholly solitary one.

Our book club is an assembly of eight completely unique and diverse personalities sealed at the heart by mutual values.  Wives, mothers of young children, single girls.  We limit our size both for the intimacy of the discussion and the hostess’ ability to easily accommodate members present around her dinner table or by her fire.  A beautifully-tooled brown leather journal that houses the Notes and a silver-plated tea warmer circulate among hostesses; the choice of tea itself rests most definitely and unanimously upon Yorkshire Gold.   We are loose enough to require a sergeant-at-arms to keep the discussion on track, but so entrenched in common devotion that no one wants to admit that they didn’t finish the book or that they will have to miss an upcoming meeting.

In the movie Shadowlands, Anthony Hopkins as C. S. Lewis muses on an arresting comment made by one of his students: We read to find we’re not alone. I’ve known the unspeakable sweetness of discovery among the pages of my favorite books, that bright flash of illumination shed upon my deepest thoughts, both expressing and validating what I had imagined only myself to have felt.  But how much sweeter still is the happiness of making the journey itself in company of proven companions, of catching that illumination in the eyes of a friend.  The dear girls of my book club are fellow pilgrims on a Golden Road.  I feel sure that we’ll still be meeting when we’re eighty.

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