Archive for 2010

Five Golden Rings

Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

the praises of our King

tables crowded with love

a cat that never forgets she was a Christmas kitten

the untarnished magic of gingerbread and powdered sugar

a White Christmas in Dixie (!!!)

It’s been a lovely one, and we’re still keeping it, fondly and heartily. I just wanted to pop in here to wish all of you a very Merry 5th Day of Christmas!

Note: Lanier’s Books will be closed for Christmas holidays from December 21st, 2010 through January 6th, 2011. Any orders received during this time will be processed after the holidays. Thank you! :)

Christmas Greetings!

Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

I wanted to emerge from the piles of holly and cedar and mountains of cookies and candy just to wish you all the very merriest of Christmases. There is so much I would say had I the time to craft it as lovingly as I’d like, but as the moments and the mental powers are allocated to the preparations for the great Day, I find any words I would try and string together woefully inadequate to express the goodwill I feel in my heart for all of you, kind readers. If you will permit me, then, I will send forth my Christmas greetings to you in the words of another, words that have unfailingly strengthened my heart for many years, as they doubtless have countless others in the centuries since they were first penned. While they may not be my own, the sentiments they express most certainly are:

I salute you. I am your friend, and my love for you goes deep.  There is nothing I can give you which you have not. But there is much, very much, that, while I cannot give it, you can take. No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take heaven! No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present little instant.

Take peace! The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy. There is radiance and glory in darkness, could we but see.  And to see, we have only to look. I beseech you to look!

Life is so generous a giver. But we, judging its gifts by their covering, cast them away as ugly or heavy or hard. Remove the covering, and you will find beneath it a living splendor, woven of love by wisdom, with power. Welcome it, grasp it, and you touch the angel’s hand that brings it to you.

Everything we call a trial, a sorrow or a duty, believe me, that angel’s hand is there. The gift is there and the wonder of an overshadowing Presence. Your joys, too, be not content with them as joys. They, too, conceal diviner gifts.

Life is so full of meaning and purpose, so full of beauty beneath its covering, that you will find earth but cloaks your heaven. Courage then to claim it; that is all! But courage you have, and the knowledge that we are pilgrims together, wending through unknown country home.

Fra Giovanni, Christmas Eve 1513

Merry Christmas to you all, and God bless you abundantly in the New Year!

And here are two songs, far from perfect, which my friends and I recorded last year. Consider them my homespun Christmas gift. 😉 (You may want to make sure the volume is not too high for the first one as the high notes are rather intense otherwise ;)):

All My Heart This Night Rejoices

Words: Paul Gerhardt, 1653 Music: Johann Ebeling, 1666

Past Three O’Clock

George Ratcliffe Woodward (1848–1934)

Note: Lanier’s Books will be closed for Christmas holidays from December 21st, 2010 through January 6th, 2011. Any orders received during this time will be processed after the holidays. Thank you! 🙂

This rush of wings afar

Monday, December 13th, 2010

"Tell us, ye birds, why come ye here,Into this stable, poor and drear?""Hast'ning we seek the newborn King,And all our sweetest music bring." ~ Charles L. Hutchins 1916

I had been looking for them for weeks, from the first real shock of cold weather in early November, expecting at any moment to be brought up short in the midst of a day’s round by the sound that is at once the most wistful and the most exhilarating I have heard in nature. To be arrested with the wild, sweet declaration of change in the air and the turn of the seasons. To be held fast and fixed in a spell of wonder that is the yearly migration flight of the sandhill cranes. I remember so many late afternoons in autumn, the yard around us violet with gathering shadows and the day’s last gilding just ebbing from the treetops as we stood with heads thrown back in a compliment of complete silence, watching the tiny black mass swirl and mount its heavenly way before pressing southward in a somewhat ragged ‘V’, always cherishing the jumbled cacophony of cries that must be deafening at close range and yet has about it all the poignancy and the bewildering exactitude of change ringing at such a distance.

They have always been a herald, a harbinger that electrifies me with aliveness and anticipation, and I love them for it.

But they have never been so late, in my memory. And I hadn’t realized just how intently I’d been listening for their glad tidings until it came.

It was one of those days that every second seemed to count. Every hour so carefully planned so as to press the last oil of productivity out of every moment. A day of loved preparation, no doubt, but ever teetering dangerously in the balance between ‘bustle’ and ‘huffing about’. The last sugar cookies were cooling on the racks and I was just measuring out the ingredients for gingerbread when I stopped as if I’d been tapped on the shoulder and caught my breath over that familiar ache of joy. I set down the jar of molasses and flew out the kitchen door, into the keen chill of a December afternoon, and whirled about, searching the sky.

I think I felt them before I saw them, in much the way that a person senses observation. For just as I turned in their direction, they appeared with a gliding sweep above the proud hedge of hollies that border the kitchen yard. At first I was too fascinated to realize that I had never seen them at such close range: their bodies were grey, not black as they always seemed, and I could even make out the darker tips of their enormous wings. I wondered wildly for a moment if they were going to land in our pasture, until it became obvious that the slow and solemn circle was on the ascent. Perhaps they had taken off from the watering hole out front—had been there for quite some time while I was inside and all oblivion, up to my ears in flour and colored sugar!

I stood transfixed as they mounted heavenward, as stately as a liturgical procession, with the occasional bird-shout of praise for good measure. And as they reached a certain height and came into a level with the slanting rays of the departing sun, an absolute miracle transpired. Each time the wheeling throng passed through the light, a wash of pure glory set them ablaze, running over them like the ripples of some heavenly watercourse, so that every wing was ‘sheathed with silver’ and every feather a flash of gold. On and on they soared, higher and higher, passing from shadow to splendor in a recurring parable of unearthly beauty.

Light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death…

Soon after they forsook the charmed hold of light, and in a matter of a breathless moment or two they had unfurled themselves into perfect formation. And like a giant bracket with one leader at the fore and two lieutenants flanking him on either side, they passed swiftly over my head in reverent silence and glided away towards the south. I was shaken as I went back into the kitchen and regarded my late occupation. It seemed almost silly to reassume something as earthly as the baking of cookies after so heavenly a benediction. And yet, not silly. Sanctified, somehow, in the purifying glow of this holy Advent which appropriates all willing things unto itself and makes of a flight of birds or a flour-dusted kitchen a sacred thing and an intersection of the lay and the liturgical.

Philip and I later talked long by the fire of why I was so moved: why the advent of a flock of birds would bear such a palpable weight of glory to my waiting heart.

Why their shrill, metallic cries would seem the very voice of one calling in the wilderness.

“It’s because we see them every year,” he said, “and we know what they mean.”

That is precisely it. It’s that same paradox that Lewis talks about in The Screwtape Letters in speaking of our thrill at the change of seasons juxtaposed with our love of the familiar:

He gives them the seasons, each season different yet every year the same, so that spring is always felt as a novelty yet always as the recurrence of an immemorial theme.

And that is precisely why Advent is such a present promise and Christmas a yearly miracle. If our own hopes and longings are a recurring theme, how much more so is God’s everlasting “Yes!” to our eternal “Why”?

The ‘Yes’ is Jesus, of course: Jesus in a manger; Jesus on a cross; Jesus coming again with power and great glory.

Jesus coming in familiarity and great particularity to our present need and thrilling us with a hope that defies reason.

The sandhill cranes were not late, any more than the God Who made them is late with the delivery on His promise. I’m so glad that they mingled themselves with my expectation this year and that Advent is the season they exulted over with their jubilant song.

Even so, come, Lord Jesus.

Celestial fowles in the air,
Sing with your notes upon the height,
In firthes and in forests fair
Be mirthful now at all your might;
For passed is your dully night;
Aurora has the cloudes pierced,
The sun is risen with gladsome light,
Et nobis puer natus est.

Rorate coeli desuper, William Dunbar 1460-1520

Angels and shepherds, birds o' the sky, Come where the Son of God doth lie; Christ on earth with man doth dwell, join in the shout "Noel, Noel." ~ Charles L. Hutchins 1916

Proper Introductions, Christmas Edition

Monday, December 6th, 2010

'On Christmas Day in the Evening' by Grace Richmond

Of all my Christmas loves, the books and stories that express the real joys of the season are among the sweetest. Over the years I have amassed a goodly circle of friends that take their indispensable places among the cherished traditions: from the short stories we like to read aloud in the weeks leading up to the blessed day to the sacrosanct pieces reserved for Christmas Eve, to the gentle novels from which I select the quiet reading for Christmas week. I am so excited to have a sampling of some of these best-loved titles in the shop this year.

It seems it just can’t be properly Christmas without Kate Douglas Wiggin. The Old Peabody Pew, A Christmas Romance of a Country Church is an early work, close on the heels of her wildly successful Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and tells the gentle tale of a wandering sheep and a faithful heart waiting at home. I loved the staunch New England setting and the spare beauty of the church, almost a character in itself, handled with such loving accuracy by the author.

The Romance of a Christmas Card, published in 1916, is a similarly tender story, albeit a more mature one in its treatment of the darker themes of estrangement and abandonment. When a minister’s wife innocently sends out Christmas cards that find their way to a couple of village wayfarers, depicting the homely radiance of the town and the people they have left behind, events are set in motion that bring everyone involved to a crisis of restoration and hope.    

The Birds’ Christmas Carol must simply be one of the most well-loved Christmas stories of all time. This one was a tradition in our home growing up, though no one wanted to be the one reading it aloud at the end, striving to steady their voice over those last beautiful pages.

There was flesh and blood in the message he gave them, and it was the message they needed.' ~ from Christmas Day in the Evening by Grace Richmond

My personal copy of The Fireside Book of Christmas Carols is growing rather loose at the hinges as it’s in constant service each year for the duration of the season. This is an absolutely marvelous collection of stories and readings that is really the nicest I have ever come across for sheer variety and content. It contains selections from such varied authors as Louisa May Alcott and Daphne DuMaurier and Elizabeth Gaskell, as well as the full text of The Birds’ Christmas Carol. Dickens’ immortal Scrooge takes his place alongside Sir Roger de Coverley and Henry Van Dyke. Silly stories lark among the more serious ones, and while I certainly can’t claim every tale in the book to be a favorite, or even a gem, I give that designation without reserve to the collection as a whole. My two favorite Christmas essays of all time were discovered within its pages: ‘Christmas in Our Town’ by Alice Van Leer Carrick and Alexander Smith’s thoughtful musings of a Christmas night in 1862.

Then of course there is Bess. Journey Into Christmas is a well-beloved sampling of the Christmas stories of Bess Streeter Aldrich, of which I have read and cherished every one. This dear book is a constant alternation between laughter and tears, and, always, a gentle celebration of the domestic graces that give such firm context to our traditions and celebrations.

Tasha Tudor is past-mistress of capturing the joys of the seasons in general and Christmas in particular. A Book of Christmas is a very special title in her holiday repertoire as it’s a charming three-dimensional experience from a uniquely Tudor perspective. It even includes one of Tasha’s famous Advent calendars right in the middle of the book!

I’m going to talk more about Temple Bailey down the road, but I simply must present So This is Christmas by saying that this new favorite of mine is a lovely introduction to her works. This Depression-era gem is a Christmas nosegay of seven lovely stories, all unique and every one bearing a message just as poignant as it is timeless. Bailey’s style is all her own, assuming at times an almost parable-like voice, and always treating the real beauties of everyday life with a reverent hand. If you like Grace Livingston Hill, this is a perfect choice for a lighter Christmas read with a genuine substance beneath. The Crystal Bowl is a slim volume containing one of the stories from this collection.

Christmas Day in the Evening by Grace Richmond

On Christmas Day in the Evening is the 1910 stand-alone sequel to Grace Richmond’s earlier On Christmas Day in the Morning. We meet the Fernald family as Richmond left them in the first book, gathered for Christmas once more at the old home in North Estabrook. Now that their own domestic rifts have been mended, the young Fernalds join forces to heal—if possible—a bitter division that has left their village church-less for over six months. I love this little book with its simple message and beautifully period illustrations.

Lloyd C. Douglas’ Home for Christmas is the rollicking story of how the five grown Clayton ‘children’ recapture lost joys and recover the essential things that have made them into the men and women they have become. Sentiment is laced with romance and humor and the whole makes for a delightful story and an excellent read-aloud. ‘A Christmas Story of Today, in the Spirit of Yesterday’, proclaims the back cover—and it’s as true in 2010 as it was in 1935.

I Saw Three Ships is a reprint of Elizabeth Goudge’s magical tale, originally published in 1969 and tells of a Christmas Eve visit that a little girl named Polly will never forget…

Christmas Days by Joseph C. Lincoln is a holiday story of old Cape Cod. A self-proclaimed ‘spinner-of-yarns’ Lincoln winds his 1938 tale over the Christmases of three nineteenth-century decades and the choices that affect an entire family, for good and ill. I confess, it was this book’s lovely cover that first attracted me, but I found what was inside to be charming as well, and a pleasant way to indulge a few hours by the fire.

In the Days of the Angels is a collection of Walt Wangerin’s Christmas essays and stories, and contains several original carols, as well. The author of The Book of the Dun Cow and The Book of God, Wangerin is a profoundly gifted writer with a voice ‘like one crying in the wilderness.’ There’s no reading him with impunity, for with razor-precision he cuts to the heart and compels his readers to examine what matters most.

Shepherd’s Abiding by Jan Karon absolutely made our Christmas a few years back. Philip and I both enjoyed this story of a sacrificial Christmas gift and the operations of love and grace moving through a whole town. Father Tim always grants perspective in his distinguishing between ‘bustle’ and ‘huffing about’, and I love Karon’s honesty, poured out in the lives of characters that feel like real people I know.

I wish you all great joy in these Advent days leading up to Christmas, and I hope that they may be filled with all the good things you love best–including the best of books! 🙂

Proper Introductions is a series dedicated to highlighting some of the titles that can be found on the shelves at Lanier’s Books. If you care to take a peek at some of these Christmas books, remember to sort by ‘Date Added’.

little tree

Friday, December 3rd, 2010

little tree
little silent Christmas tree
you are so little
you are more like a flower.
who found you in the green forest
and were you very sorry to come away?
see i will comfort you
because you smell so sweetly
i will kiss your cool bark
and hug you safe and tight
just as your mother would,
only don’t be afraid
look the spangles
that sleep all the year in a dark box
dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine,
the balls the chains red and gold the fluffy threads,
put up your little arms
and i’ll give them all to you to hold
every finger shall have its ring
and there won’t be a single place dark or unhappy
then when you’re quite dressed
you’ll stand in the window for everyone to see
and how they’ll stare!
oh but you’ll be very proud
and my little sister and i will take hands
and looking up at our beautiful tree
we’ll dance and sing
“Noel, Noel!”

e.e. cummings, 1920

And so, it commences…

Monday, November 29th, 2010

The brightest, most blessed season of the year. My heart has been leaning into it for weeks, friends. But the miracle of the first dawning of Advent never ceases to catch me off guard–can it really have come again? The earliest tasks of the season always bear with them a certain tender awe. And always the sweetest amazement that He actually came…

Caspian lends his aid to the Advent Wreath

" do Him honor Who's our King, and Lord of all this reveling..."

Puck's already sporting his Christmas best

the Advent Wreath on Sunday afternoon, all anticipation

We fetched home our Christmas tree on Friday, after a jolly search (and I was so overcome with the rightness of the one we found I hugged it on the spot). I’m very particular about Christmas trees–and even more so once we get them home. We have as many traditions for the preparation as for the actual decorating. 😉 But as my tree has to last and be lovely from the first Sunday in Advent right on through to the last waning moments of 12th Night, I can’t be too lavish with my care. For one, we never carry our tree on the top of our car–think of all that wind rushing over it and drying it out! (But I’ll spare you the details of the homeward journey, involving a tree trunk on the console of the Explorer and an eighty-pound dog in my lap! ;)) As soon as we get it home it receives a fresh cut and an instant immersion in what Philip calls my ‘tree brew’: a recipe that has miraculously guaranteed a fresh and fragrant tree throughout the duration of the season. It originally came from the Fermilab website and even though it’s a little extra trouble I absolutely swear by it. Here is the recipe, if anyone is interested:

Two cups Karo syrup
Two ounces liquid chlorine bleach
Two pinches Epsom salts
One-half teaspoon Borax
One teaspoon chelated iron
Hot water to fill two-gallon bucket

Fill a two-gallon bucket with hot water to within one inch of the top and add the remaining ingredients. Stir thoroughly, dissolving ingredients. Set aside.

With a saw, cut an inch off the bottom of the trunk of your recently purchased tree. Try to make a level cut.

Immediately stand the trunk of the tree in the solution and leave for 24 hours.

Keep the remaining solution. Place your tree in a tree stand that contains a well for liquid.

When the tree is in its final resting place, use a plastic cup to pour solution from the bucket into the tree well. Fill the well.

Every day without exception, “top up” the well of the tree with the solution from the two-gallon bucket.

(Note 1: We cover the well of our tree stand with a screen of hardware cloth, just to keep any curious kitties from sampling the brew–I can’t think it would be good for them.)

(Note 2: While this recipe is indicated as a ‘fire-retardant’ on the Fermilab website, I am making no such claim-I am sharing it as a preservative and fragrance-enhancer only.)


And so, welcome to Advent, dear ones. My prayer for you all is that it may be the sweetest and the holiest you have ever known.

p.s. Here is a fabulous Christmas piece that I thought you would all enjoy. It’s written by our dear and talented friend (and husband of my darling writing partner), Luke Boggs, for The Sunday Paper last year. Enjoy! 🙂

A Passion for the Season

p.p.s. I just want to take this opportunity to make sure that you all know how very much the mere fact of your being here and reading these words means to me. And the words that you share in return absolutely overwhelm me. I assure you, though I may not be able to reply as extensively as I would like to, I read and cherish every single comment and kindness you have sent my way. I am humbled by your grace and your graciousness and I am inspired to press on by the way that you put me in courage with your words. And I do not exaggerate in the least when I say that you are the best part of this chronicled experience online.

Thank you, friends…

A Goodly Heritage

Thursday, November 25th, 2010

the king of the bottomlands

Thanksgiving, like any other beloved memorial with which the years are reckoned, has its own certain types, its venerable standard of ‘brightest and best’ against which each year’s observance is weighed. They may all—or most—be cherished in our hearts, a mellow, collected memory of loved rituals and the loved ones that give them meaning. But for each of us, there is a Thanksgiving or two amid our personal gathering of days that shines out like a beacon, a flashing lamp of gold scattering any hint of dark discontent or faltering hopes and illumining each successive holiday with the inspired light of God’s faithfulness. A Thanksgiving that epitomizes the meaning of the day—a thanks that is as much a forward-reaching as a tallying of the past and grants a brief, albeit unforgettable taste of the gratefulness that should overwhelm us all every moment of our lives.

Such a Thanksgiving was mine the year I was twenty-four.

It wasn’t the first time Philip had taken me to the farm—we had been on a jaunt one Saturday earlier that autumn, scarcely two months into our relationship, on the distinct errand of meeting his grandparents, towards whom he held the most reverential love. I had been honored that day with every possible mark of kindness and affection: a steaming country breakfast during which I sat in the old kitchen trying to take it all in with wide-eyed amazement, nodding helplessly as Philip’s grandmother offered more eggs and blackened bacon and crisp toast with a homemade grape jelly that still haunts my dreams. An afternoon spent wandering over the farm itself (of which Philip’s grandfather knew every square inch) and a sudden opportunity to distinguish myself with a rifle and a tin can. Homemade ice cream for supper simply because I happened to let fall the comment that I loved it. It was one of the happiest days I have known, and deserves a story all its own. I was loved without pretense that day and without scruple—lavishly, as practically as only real salt-of-the-earth people can love, nourished body and soul and enfolded with acceptance simply because I was their Philip’s girlfriend.

But Thanksgiving was a little overwhelming, excited as I was to be going back to the farm and thrilled to hold that place at Philip’s side. The front porch was filled with cousins as we drove into the yard: the little house seemed to be bursting at the seams. Inside the clamor was gorgeously unruly. At this distance it all appears a blur of laugher and bellowed greetings and hand-shakings and back-slappings. What felt like a thousand introductions amid a dizzying array of kinfolk and a constant noise of doors slamming and the happy clanging of pots and pans like a ripening overture issuing from the kitchen. And over all, the pervasive aroma of fried okra, ‘accidentally’ burnt just like Philip liked it.

I hardly fathomed how we all fit into that minuscule kitchen, with its whitewashed walls and open shelves bearing the household wealth of tea pots and home-canned goods. But we managed to form ourselves into a semblance of a line and made our way, plates in hand, down the festal countertop bearing a year’s bounty of garden and orchard (among which my little jar of cranberry conserve made a shy showing). And we all managed, likewise, to find a place to perch with our food: Philip and I sat on the porch swing in the benevolence of one of our mild November days and chatted with cousins on whose names I kept inwardly drilling myself.

Philip’s grandfather had taken us out over the farm on foot, at a firm clip we could scarce keep pace with, pointing out all the newest marks of his industry with the serenity of an artist that knows his handiwork is good. A watering hole for the cows, freshly dug; a row of hedge knocked down; a section of pasture newly cleared. Philip and I walked beside him hand in hand as he strode over the grassy hilltops, tranquil king of his domain, talking all the while of this land he loved so fervently and which had been loved before him by those long gone.

After lunch we set out in the Explorers, Philip’s brothers and his father and grandfather, bouncing over the rutted lanes to the very loveliest part of the farm: the bottomlands. There was a fallen tree about the eastern fringe that must needs be split into firewood: a thinly-veiled ruse for male companionship in manly labor which I now know characterizes this clan of industrious souls. It was just that time in the afternoon when the waning autumn light was throwing out its last glittering standards of the day, spears and arrows of radiance amid the long, spare shadows of nearly-leafless trees. The remaining bits of brightness among the branches, tatters and shreds of a late finery, glowed as if the light had consumed them and granted in the act the real identity of their color.

the bottomlands in autumn sunlight

As the men fell to work, splitting and hauling with many a cheerful observation on the task, I sat by on a log, needlework in hand, chatting with the lovely young woman I was trying not to let myself think would be my sister-in-law. The sun went down before our eyes in a glory of rose and gold and a train of apricot cloud that reached far over our heads and away to the east. It was the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen, and I never set foot on the bottoms without the memory of it. But the loveliest part of it—the beauty behind the beauty—was the setting and the significance. These people all gathered for love: three generations working together for love and their ladies sitting by for love and the look in Philip’s eyes as he glanced up at me from time to time. Such burdens of joy can scarce be borne by our frail human frame and such moments are as eternal as eternity itself. What timelessness towards which their fleeting instants point and their golden standards raise!

When the trees were dark against the horizon and the dusk took on a chill, we all loaded into the trucks and headed back. How lovely to come upon that little clapboard house by the road, all cheerfulness of chrysanthemums and tidy shrubs without, all the gladness of warmth and light and good food within. It was no surprise to find dinner on the table, crowned with the legendary holiday delight of Philip’s grandmother’s teacakes. Men may laud the immortal savor of a good mess of greens and women may perfect to a high art the delicate layerings of a true angel biscuit. But give me Philip’s grandmother’s teacakes any day for real Southern comfort food. As I sat there at the table among these people I never dreamed I’d even know a year previous, it suddenly dawned on me with a quiet, confident joy that these would be my family. That this would be my life—a life for which I had been prepared for all my life at the side of this man for whom I had prayed for as long as I could remember. The thought took my breath and I blinked at the happy tears in my eyes.

“Father,” was my silent thanksgiving, “I couldn’t have asked for this.”

I wouldn’t have dared had I dreamed enough to ask it.

Quick as a flash a sweet response met my rejoicing, a bit of Browning that had lain in hopeful repose for so many years:

“God’s gifts put man’s best dreams to shame.”

It was the last big family Thanksgiving on the farm, and thanks be to God, not a one of us suspected it. By the next year Granddaddy was gone: Philip’s aunt had sung Poor Wayfarin’ Stanger for him one last time at a standing-room-only funeral and Philip’s grandmother had moved back permanently to the little house in town, the twinkle in her eye making a brave show for the sake of those she loved but the light behind it gone out this side of heaven. By the next June she had followed her husband of sixty years on his long journey—gladly, as I can only believe.

A few Thanksgivings ago we drove over the farm to the little white house, affectionately known as ‘Old Granny’s’ after Philip’s grandfather’s mother. While the marks of renovation indicating a cousin’s imminent occupation made me glad that it would no longer stand empty, the absence of those bright spirits that had illumined it once and made it a place of happy pilgrimage for a close-knit family brought an overwhelming sadness—curiously, though not unequally, yoked with joy. I looked at the desolate flower beds with their few straggling survivors and saw a bright array of mums that will be there forever. We stepped up on the porch and my mind echoed with the laughter of a day that will never grow old. We walked around to the little well house at the back with its sagging roof and the yard was suddenly populated with well-fed cats and their kittens, one orange tabby of their number which made my heart leap in my throat.

“Nothing can be as it has been,” it has been well said. But the fact that it has been—ah, such treasures are safe forever, uncorrupted by moth or rust.

Philip made the comment the other day that our typical expressions of thanksgiving tend to be immediate—Thank You, God, for this new job, this return of health, this gorgeous day—while the gratefulness illustrated in the Bible points to an even more comprehensive outlook. Not that the former is without merit—certainly not—but it’s really only the beginning stages, primary grades in the school of thanks. Throughout the Psalms we find God’s people praising Him for things that happened before they were born, in addition to deliverance promised in the future. Over and over again God’s past mercies are recounted, His long-ago victories lauded. The songs and stories were written down, not just for the immediate satisfaction of the writer but for ‘children yet to be born’—for us.

Looking back over this little flash in the pan I call my own history, I am overwhelmed with the legacy I see stretching in all directions. It’s worth wondering if the present blessings we all enjoy are largely owning to the faithfulness and the prayers of great-great grandmothers and grandfathers. I am certain of it. And though I should be celebrating it every day that I am alive, this Thanksgiving I am especially keen to the heritage of godliness that has gone into the framing of my own story and the birthright which I have been entrusted.

Both from my blessed ancestry and the one I was privileged to marry into.

LORD, you alone are my portion and my cup;
you make my lot secure.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
surely I have a delightful inheritance. ~Psalm 16

Thank You, Lord. I don’t know what else to say.

the creek

Storied Lives

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

a personal Memorial Day, August 2007

It was a glorious November day, stark and long-shadowed as only South Georgia can make it. The road we traversed was a familiar one—as familiar as the drive to my own home—and every field and house and stand of pines was a familiar friend. Even the red dirt roads veering off to the left and right which I’d never traversed but in fancy were known to me. I remembered straining my child-eyes down them as we whizzed past in that lumbering Buick station wagon, my sister crouched up against the opposite window with a book and my brother hanging his elbows over the seat from the ‘back back’ and infringing upon my highly affronted personal space, and knowing what their sudden curves and tree-hung shadows held hidden from the passing view. I saw the old white farmsteads and the barns weathered black with their rusted tin roofs and another pine-guarded pasture stubbled gold in the light of a vanishing year. And if the imaginative sprite was strong upon me, I saw the folks that inhabited them: women fiercely womanly whether their labor lay in a garden or a schoolroom or an immaculate kitchen, and men whose veteran integrity infused humble origins and working clothes with a courtly grandeur. I both saw and knew such phantom figures, for they were none other than composite daydreams of the kith and kin I had heard stories about all my life.

On this day my husband was driving, and the celebrated station wagon, long gone to its own place with wreaths and laurels, was supplanted by a Ford Explorer. We were going to the funeral of my father’s oldest sister, a laughing light that had gone out at ninety-six, and though my mother and I managed to keep up an unflagging stream of talk in the back seat, my mind and eyes were awake to the scenes through which we passed. A funeral is always a solemn errand, no matter how graceful a soul may have been in dying (and such was the case with my Aunt Elise), and to combine it with a soul pilgrimage to the source of one’s springing is at once a trust and a gift.

A memento mori.

I love the way South Georgia makes me feel. I love the memories it kindles and the love of those long-dead that flares and flames amid the quiet streets of the town in which my father grew up. Who could guess that such unassuming spots as a certain street corner or an overgrown garden or a rusty swing set could be thronged with so many happy ghosts, all but elbowing one another aside for sheer joy of the company? I’ll bet a thousand cars a day pass that little grey house that used to be yellow where my grandmother once reigned, never dreaming that to someone on this earth it is a sacred shrine, hallowed with the undying lamp of remembrance.

There was one place that we passed on the way into town, however, that gave me a turn and an unfailing shiver. It was the railroad trestle spanning the road about which my father had recounted tales that had made my blood curdle deliciously as an six year-old and now, as a thirty-something, provided that tantalizing sense of murky recollection that shrouds so many of the legends of childhood. What was that guy’s name? I leaned forward to ask Daddy, but he and Philip were talking politics. And any good Southern girl knows that that’s not a conversation to interrupt, unless it’s to put an exasperated stop to it. So I leaned back and tried to remember on my own. Something dreadful…the train…made his hair turn white…

Many people cherish childhood memories of their parents reading to them at night, tucking them in with a prayer and a kiss. I have all these, and reverence them with their due. But I have something more—something uniquely precious and entrusted to me alone. I have my Daddy’s stories. When Daddy tucked me in at night, I spurned the fairy tales and little-rabbits-living-in-the-roots-of-trees kind of books that had my heart at all other times. Requesting such from Daddy was an unconscionable waste of natural resources.

“Tell me about when you were a little boy,” I would unfailingly say. “Tell me about you and Bobby.”

I can still feel the tingling thrill of that new Schwinn for Christmas, green and gold. The pathos of cigar boxes of buried treasure in the backyard to which no earthly map would ever lead. The storied splendor of Lynch’s Flowerland across the street and the high glories of playground fights. The hot, helpless anger rises yet at the thought of the anonymous poisoning of Bobby’s dog, Pal. The wonder shines untarnished at the miracle of a tin can telephone.

Bobby was Daddy’s best friend and as inseparable from him as David from Jonathan. Nearly all the stories had Bobby in them—I grew to envision him as an almost god-like entity of healthy, joyous boyhood, brown-eyed (I have absolutely no idea what color his eyes were) and abloom with life from the dew of the morning. Thus was Daddy’s reverence translated to me. When the stories reached the point of Bobby moving away, I could hardly bear it. I remember lying in my little white bed staring into the dark after Daddy had given me my kiss and turned out the light, suffocating with the impossible, senseless tragedy of it. It was my first exposure to the world’s pain.

Years later, when my own best friend moved away, the tales of Daddy and Bobby gave context to the story of my own heartbreak and helped transfigure it into a desperate joy for the blessing leant of her nearness all those years. I came in from seeing her off on a life adventure with her new husband and found my Daddy reading in his chair in the den. I crossed the room at a bound, and without ceremony, curled all of my twenty year-old lankiness into his lap and sobbed.

“When Bobby moved away, I thought I was going to die,” Daddy said quietly.

And it was enough.

There were other stories: family legends, winding narratives of the community, anecdotes that Daddy could hardly get through for laughing. I wanted to hear—again and again—about the Coca-Cola plant his daddy managed and about the chug-a-lug contests among the workers. About the pearl-handled pistol my grandfather relieved a would-be robber of. And the time Daddy knocked over all his grandmother’s beehives just to see what would happen and received the only serious scolding she ever gave him in her life. These accounts, and thousands like them, gave me the dead back again to see and know and love (both Daddy’s father and Bobby were gone before I was born), and they laid a foundation that serves to this day to convince me that real life is an epic story that’s worth the trouble of both living and telling well. It’s the model for the fairy tales, not the other way around.

My aunt’s memorial was a time of story, as well. During the family lunch, people took the floor, one after another, not to eulogize, but to tell such tales of Elise and her ‘singing heart’ as to bring her vividly to life in every mind and heart present: as vivid as she must be this moment in her Lord’s glory. It was a rollicking, joyous time, and I felt so fierce-grateful for the blood that courses in my veins. I love the rock from whence I’m hewn; I loved looking around that room and seeing all those blue eyes and patrician chins and hearing that deep, unmistakable laugh rolling from my Daddy, the laugh he inherited from his father.

I heard it again later that afternoon, visiting Aunt Ernestine, who wasn’t well enough to come to the funeral, but received all the family members in state, legs swinging girlishly over the side of her sickbed, blue eyes fixed keen and uncompromising on whomever she addressed. She reminded me of a queen, from whom every word and gesture meant something important. And there that laugh swelled and rolled, again and again, irrespective of lung cancer and all the rest of earth’s sorrow. She was so beautiful I could have stayed in the room all day, just gathering bits of light from her. Her laugh like Daddy’s and her eyes like mine, and that definite, dominant joy that filled the room and made us all laugh, though her breath came in gasps.

She patted Daddy’s knee beside her. “This is my Daddy when I was your age,” looking at me. For some wild reason, I felt like she had given me a gift, a bequest. This wonderful, wondrous Granddaddy I had heard about all my life; this immortal Daddy of mine—sitting right here together on the side of Ernestine’s bed.

On the way home I plied Daddy with questions. I was desperate—frantic—to hear the stories again. To gather as many to my heart as one four-hour drive could grant me. When one tale was told I fed him another. I kept catching Philip’s eye in the rearview mirror: he was enjoying it as much as I was. But I was more than enjoying—I was cataloguing. I was lining my childish impressions up against the experience of adulthood and logging them away as fully-matured accounts of human existence, in all its agony and ecstasy.

We passed the railroad trestle again and I leaned forward, imperative this time.

“Daddy, tell me again about the man on the train—the dreadful thing that turned his hair white.”

Daddy was thoughtful for a moment, as if gathering up the threads of a tale that had lain dormant for nearly thirty years.

“Well, I don’t rightly remember—,” he hedged. “What was that man’s name?”

I was aghast.

“How could your forget?” I demanded. “It was so dreadful—,”

“Oh, yes.” Daddy laughed to himself and the past glimmered in the sound. “Sidney—Sidney McCorckle, that was it.”

“So what happened to him? It’s haunted me all my life.”

Daddy smiled his slow grin.

“Aw, Sidney McCorckle? I made him up.”

The moral to that story is that if I possess, in addition to a reverence for the ‘true tall tales’ which make up my personal history, an irrepressible penchant for fiction, you’ll know who to blame.

Elise and Ernestine, August 2007

Best Intentions

Saturday, November 13th, 2010

a friend's flaming gift of a centerpiece

After an insanely busy week that crash landed in illness, the post I’d been weaving in my head never actually made it to the page. As my mother is always faithful to remind me, “life is what happens when you had other plans”.

Nevertheless, I thought I’d just pop in and say Hello! and a few other randomly unconnected things…

I’m sure many of you have seen the note that’s been traveling around Facebook, wherein friends are invited to share fifteen authors that have inspired, challenged and shaped their thinking. The only rule is that you are supposed to rattle them off: no thoughtful pondering and agonizing. (One might consider the limitation to fifteen a rule. I haven’t decided yet whether or not I’m going to honor that distinction. Probably not.) I’ve been tagged so many times, I thought I may as well share them here. (Another rule broken, you might say. I’m a rebel.) So here goes:

Sheldon Vanauken
Charles Williams
George Eliot
T.S. Eliot
Madeleine L’Engle
Charlotte Bronte
Gerard Manley Hopkins
William Wordsworth
Lucy Maud Montgomery
Elizabeth Goudge
Thomas Howard
C.S. Lewis
J.R.R. Tolkien
Christina Rossetti
Gene Stratton-Porter
George MacDonald
Louisa May Alcott
Rumer Godden
Elizabeth Gaskell
Jane Austen
Charles Dickens
Elisabeth Elliot
Edith Schaeffer
Brenda Ueland
Dorothy Sayers

not quite the first fire of the season, but very nearly

In other news, here are two dearests that I have been meaning to tell you about for some time:

The first is my lovely and talented sister, Liz. She is a representational artist living in New York, creating beauty with and without her paintbrush every day of her life, and she has inspired me as an artist more than anyone else on the face of this earth. She’s been updating her site (“Beetle’s Day”) with works from a recent stint in Europe: Sarajevo, Paris and Madrid. Don’t miss the beautiful Notre Dame at Night, one of my favorites. Val-de-Grace and Window in Madrid are especially breathtaking, as well. But they all are! And here’s the amazing part: all of the pieces listed on her site are available for sale!

Next, my darling friend and writing partner, Laura. Friends, I cannot tell you how much I love and admire this girl. She is all indomitable pluck and unfailing womanly charm and social wit, and she’s an incredibly gifted writer, to boot. And besides all these, Laura has a mind and heart awake to the operations of Grace that transfigure daily life into a spiritual pilgrimage. I invite you to enjoy her candid journey as a writer at Mere Enthusiasm.

And just to round off this haphazard post, I had a piece published on The Rabbit Room this week, an honor in every sense of the word. You can find it here if you’re interested. 🙂

(Oh! And good heavens–how could I forget Kenneth Grahame and Tennyson!!)

So who are your “15”? I’d love to hear, if you care to share below! 🙂

my idea of an absolutely perfect autumn afternoon

edited to add: Evelyn Waugh. Ahem. 😉

Sweet Delights

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

A re-post from a year ago…simply because I’m feeling so nostalgic. And so wistful over the thought of absent friends that I can’t help it…

As long as we live, there is never enough singing. ~Martin Luther

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 Sargent’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.

Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art... It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival. ~C. S. Lewis