Archive for 2011

All Anticipation

Monday, December 19th, 2011

". . . for it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself." ~Charles Dickens

It has been such a beautiful Adventide, bright with times to keep. Like sitting by the fire with a little clutch of beloved friends all in formal evening dress, sipping eggnog and discussing the Incarnation. Like watching the late afternoon sun warm the walls of the Cathedral downtown while the old, old Story was told again in Lessons and Carols. Like the sudden catch in my throat at the words of O Holy Night in French.

My only complaint, as always, is that it’s going by too fast. I make such a desperate effort to cling to the golden hours even as they fly, and for me that means several concrete things: savoring each loved yearly task and making the effort in the act to be aware of why I’m doing it; as many quiet evenings by the fire together as possible, reading aloud or listening to favorite Christmas records; scribbling like mad in my journal, snatching at precious things with words woefully inadequate for such glory but which, I hope, will evoke the magic of this particular season in later years. It’s always so interesting for me to consider that so much that I love about Christmas is the same from year to year, reborn in the bright beauty of this shining today, so old and so ever-new. Things may be far from perfect in our January-to-November lives; the coming of another New Year may only serve to sharpen the sting of unmet desire and yet-to-be-fulfilled longings. And yet, Christmas comes in with a flourish, holly-crowned and ivy-dressed, glittering with diamond frosts to rival the brightness of any store bought baubles, insistent in its message of Joy despite our human efforts to reduce it to a meaningless round of going and doing and spending.

It’s that indomitable Yes of Christmas that makes me love it more than any other season of the year. With the birth of Christ, God literally astounded the human race with His love. A Light that can never be extinguished penetrated our darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. The Dayspring has visited us, and left His everlasting mark on our world. As far as I’m concerned, that is something to celebrate with all of my heart and most of my strength (hence the shocking shortage of posts around here—I’m sorry, friends). I heard a fantastic sermon early on in the season about John the Baptist and how the whole mission of his life was simply to point to Jesus. That concept captured my heart, and it really has been my desire and prayer that all this love I’m lavishing on my dear ones might simply serve as a finger pointing to the honored Host ‘of all this reveling.’ A lofty goal, no doubt, and one I have to keep bringing myself back to. But His grace is so good. And His beauty gilds the most ordinary things.

"Christmas is a season for kindling the fire for hospitality in the hall, the genial flame of charity in the heart." ~ Washington Irving

And so I have been baking and cooking and polishing and trimming like mad. Armloads of holly have been carted inside and dragged through the rooms on a sheet to adorn the tops of pictures, and tiny boxwood rings crown my hurricanes and votives. My freezer is stuffed with enough casseroles and cookies and treats to feed two small armies (one on Christmas Eve and the other on Christmas Day) and I’ve ironed about a thousand damask napkins. Even as I write, I have one eye on a pot of fragrant, simmering gingerbread caramels, and another on cinnamon rolls rising on the counter. There is still so much to do: a last minute freshening of greenery, fashioning the cedar wreaths for the barn animals’ Christmas treat, making the plum pudding, wrapping gifts (I haven’t wrapped the first one!)…

"Christmas is the day that holds all time together." ~Alexander Smith

But for tonight, I’m going to cease the glad doing and just sit and stare at my tree with a wonder undiminished by the years. Maybe spin a crackly old Robert Shaw album on the turntable. And just keep Christmas.

I wish you all the very Merriest of Christmases, and as a little gift, I’d like to share this carol that I recorded with my friend Rachel. Our original inspiration was the lovely, almost breathlessly-quiet John Rutter rendition, but our accompanist (who also happened to be her brother) insisted on spicing things up a bit. The funny thing is that we two rather stodgy Christmas-music-traditionalists liked it better his way, when it was all said and done. I confess, I halted over sharing it, because I am flat on the first note (!). But it’s such a dear song. And, this of all times of the year, it’s not about Perfect.

It’s about Love.

I Saw a Maiden

An Unveiling

Monday, December 5th, 2011

"All pioneers are considered to be afflicted with moonstruck madness." ~Gilbert Blythe

It all started two years ago.

In truth, it started well before that, probably back in my childhood, when I would pore longingly over the crafts section in my Highlights magazine, laying on my bedroom floor with my chin propped on my arms. From my earliest memories, I have always loved to fashion things with my hands. Some of my most famous and oft-repeated last words have been, “I could make that.” Sometimes it’s a delightful and satisfying success. And other times it’s a delightful mess that ends up under the bed or in a dark corner of the attic. But come weal or woe, I’m never so happy as when my fingers are into something—glue, paint, Christmas greens, garden dirt, flour.

I’m sometimes even tempted to write with a quill pen so that I’d have some of those lovely Jo March ink stains to proclaim my vocation to the world.

But this particular madness started two years ago.

I had been daydreaming out loud to Philip about this dancing vision I had. It was so absurd I couldn’t help being enchanted by it: A small-scale run of books made entirely by hand. Was it possible? Was it even remotely financially feasible?

Was I crazy?

I’ll never forget Philip’s reply. He looked straight at me and smiled.

“We can do this,” he said.

And, oh, how I love that ‘we’. It has made all the difference.

In January of 2010 we made a plan. I selected a public domain text for the first run and began to acquaint myself with the mysteries and mazes of Adobe InDesign. I read everything I could on the craft of bookbinding, and schemed over how I could maneuver a one-at-a-time process into a multiple copy run.

Philip built the presses for me—and there is a world of love contained in that one little phrase. He made them all by hand and set me up with everything I would need to make books. I still just sit in my shop sometimes and gloat over my tools, they are so beautiful. (And I realize, in bookbinding as in other arts, that I love the instruments and devices as much as what is produced by them. I get a little giddy over things like English bookbinding needles and Irish linen thread.)

“Yet an old book has something for me which no new book can ever have—for at every reading the memories and atmosphere of other readings come back and I am reading old years as well as an old book.” ~L.M. Montgomery

As the year went on, that ‘we’ expanded to a circle of dear and extremely talented folks. My amazing and artistic brother-in-law taught me how to use that ornery old InDesign, and spent hours on the phone with me, sending files back and forth, and formatting things exactly the way I wanted them. My sister—the one who introduced me to book arts in the first place—designed the logo for my press. And she created two supremely gorgeous original oil paintings to illustrate my book: one for the cover plate and one for the frontispiece. Local letterpress artisans and dear friends, Matt and Erica Hinton, helped me figure out how in the wide world we could deboss and imprint so many cases at once, and Matt invested literal days into making it work. The result of his labors took my breath. I am overwhelmed at the support and excitement these people lent to my project, and deeply grateful for the mark of their talents upon it.

And so, on this December day, in the year of our Lord 2011, I am pleased to introduce the first release of Low Door Press:

Kilmeny of the Orchard by L.M. Montgomery

“I'd like to add some beauty to life," said Anne dreamily. "I don't exactly want to make people know more... though I know that is the noblest ambition... but I'd love to make them have a pleasanter time because of me... to have some little joy or happy thought that would never have existed if I hadn't been born.” ~L.M. Montgomery

I selected this title for many reasons, chief of which being that I fell in love with it as an impressionable teenager, and I wanted to honor Montgomery herself and her influence on my life with an affectionately handcrafted edition of her second book.

I was sixteen years old when I first made the acquaintance of Kilmeny Gordon. I had known her older sister, Anne Shirley, for about four years at the time, and the blessed hours I had spent in her company had given me a love for Lucy Maud Montgomery and her writings that was akin to reverence—a reverence which remains steadfast to this day.

from my preface

The pages are acid-free rag content and the signatures were folded and sewn entirely by hand onto cotton tapes with Irish bookbinder’s thread. I used an archival PVA book glue and traditional English mull for the binding, and the headbanding at the head and tail of the spine are silk. The book cloth is Dover linen and the endpapers are Italian cotton. As I have mentioned, the artwork is from original oils painted by my sister, and the cases were individually debossed and inked on an early-twentieth century engraver’s press. I would not even be able to begin to say how many hours went into each book, but I can avow that every one of them was a labor of love.

So why would I attempt something so crazy? Am I glutton for punishment or a moonstruck lunatic?

Neither, I hope. But I am a lover of beauty and the God who authored it. And I long, like all of us, in my small way, to contribute to His great canvas of beauty that overspreads the world in spite of all the evil and darkness and ugliness. In the face of it, really. My brush is quite small, more suited to details, but I want to ply it with a confident hope that it matters. That in a world of automation and plastic and hurry, there is still a place for something impractical and time consuming and existing only for love. Ruskin said the most beautiful things in life are often the most useless. “Peacocks and lilies for instance.”

And maybe even handmade books.

“Oh, it's delightful to have ambitions. I'm so glad I have such a lot. And there never seems to be any end to them-- that's the best of it. Just as soon as you attain to one ambition you see another one glittering higher up still. It does make life so interesting.” ~L.M. Montgomery

I am listing 15 copies of Kilmeny of the Orchard today. (There will be more in the shop after Christmas.) Unfortunately, due to copyright restrictions, I can only sell them to residents of the U.S. Thank you for your understanding.

My writing partner wrote this loving tribute to my Kilmeny, if you’d care to read it. And while you’re at it, do yourself a favor and enjoy her endearing daily raptures celebrating her love for this holy season of Advent…

On the cusp

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

"The darling of the world is come..." R. Herrick

I say this every year, but how I wish that I could freeze time. Just now, in this very moment. Still on the sweet, breathless cusp of it all, with the days stretching out in gilded promise, glitter sparkling behind the closed doors of the Advent calendar and fresh bits of holly and greens appearing throughout my house by the day.

I’ve been making gingerbread cookies for the Christmas tree today, and weaving delightfully wonky little cedar wreaths for my kitchen windows. I cut a branch of holly I’ve been eyeing for weeks for the arrangement I always put on the big Empire chest in our bedroom and I ironed my rather tattered but dearly-loved silk ribbons and tied them on the arms of the chandelier in huge, drooping bows.

My fingers are marked with the battle scars of encounters with prickly greens, and even that seems a thing to rejoice in.

Soon the memories and tender joys of this Christmas will join the ranks of all the loved Christmases past. But I am determined to keep this precious time with all my heart, even as it flies. My heart’s deep prayer as I enter into this most sacred season is that I will just love my Savior well in all this happy hullabaloo of preparation. I crave a spirit like that of Brother Lawrence, who made a life practice of acknowledging the presence of Christ and lifting all tasks to Him even in the doing of them.

The time of business does not differ with me from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen…I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were on my knees.

That is my ambition, by the grace of God: to prepare my heart and my home for the coming of Love itself.

Happy waiting, dear friends…

"To do Him honor, who's our King, and Lord of all this reveling..." R. Herrick

Favorite Things ~ November Edition

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

I agree wholeheartedly with Jodi’s sentiments about November over on Curious Acorn. (Y’all, get to know her if you don’t already. She is one of my best-beloveds.) It is truly one of my favorite months, second only to that holly-crowned queen of a December. Strangely enough, however, I seem to forget just how splendidly I love it until it rolls around again in its modest way, stealing up so quietly I almost don’t realize it’s there until I’m in the midst of it.

“How can it be November again?” I always ask myself.

And why is the year so inexpressibly, unbearably beautiful in its slow death? I am tempted to say that even the wild greening of late April is unable to compare with the loveliness of blood-red dogwoods and ambered hickories. The scent of woodsmoke and decaying leaves is enough to bring tears to my eyes, and there’s a wistfulness to the angle of the light that brings out every detail of the landscape with the fineness of a delicate etching.

Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns. ~George Eliot

Autumn color doesn’t arrive full glory till November here in Dixie, but when it does, you forgive her any delay. The sassafras is scarlet, the grapevine is golden, and the trees of the field seem a very rhapsody of crimson and flame. All but the cedars and the pines–they are deepening and intensifying their greens to an almost blue-bloom of freshness, in readiness for their great honor come December…

There is a harmony in autumn, and a luster in its sky, which through the summer is not heard or seen, as if it could not be, as if it had not been! ~Percy Bysshe Shelley

When I’m adorning my table, I always look to seasonal fruit and garden offerings. This little arrangement from a very special luncheon is a combination of damson plums, mistflowers, Japanese maple and and peegee hydrangeas clipped from my mother’s yard. I do love hydrangeas best in the fall, when their hues have mellowed into the pale greens and rust-tipped ivories that remind me of Jasperware.

I know the lands are lit with all the autumn blaze of goldenrod. ~Helen Hunt Jackson

This old mill we stumbled upon in Cornwall a couple of years ago makes me think of George Eliot's Dorlcote Mill.

There is no author I love better in late autumn than George Eliot. Her poignant insights and descriptions fit my mood like a glove. Right now I’m reading The Mill on the Floss, and, while I’m not sure where the plot’s going, she has given me enough clues already to suspect that Maggie Tulliver’s way in life will not necessarily be strewn with roses. I am literally savoring the words, she writes so beautifully.

We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it,–if it were not the earth where the same flowers come up again every spring that we used to gather with our tiny fingers as we sat lisping to ourselves on the grass; the same hips and haws on the autumn’s hedgerows; the same redbreasts that we used to call “God’s birds,” because they did no harm to the precious crops. What novelty is worth that sweet monotony where everything is known, and loved because it is known?

George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

"O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being. Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing." - Percy Bysshe Shelley

November also means certain tasks in preparation for Christmas, like ironing the linens, giving a shine to all the sconce globes, and polishing the silver. I have to confess–I absolutely love polishing silver. There is nothing like the satisfaction of taking something deplorable and dingy and making it sparkle again. There’s a parable right before me every single year as I’m buffing loved things into brilliance once more with a soft cotton cloth.

And lest you think I’m a glutton for punishment, I will let you in on a little secret that a friend of mine shared with me several years ago that has upgraded the act of polishing silver from a job to a literal magic act: Put your kettle on to boil. Then line your sink with aluminum foil and sprinkle it with a generous cup or two of baking soda. When the water is boiling, pour it over the baking soda in the sink and immerse your silver into the sizzling brew. I promise, if you haven’t seen it before, you won’t believe your eyes. The tarnish literally vanishes. Try dipping a corner of a tray or an edge of a plate just to underscore the magic. It is so amazing, and all that remains is to rinse and polish with a nice, soft, dry cloth.

For we pay a price for everything we get or take in this world; and although ambitions are well worth having, they are not to be cheaply won, but exact their dues of work and self-denial, anxiety and discouragement. ~L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

Another thing that November has come to mean is novelling. Yes, that is a verb. Just ask Chris Baty, founder of National Novel Writing Month, endearingly known as NaNoWriMo. I’ve done it in the past, and it has definitely left its mark. So much so, that my writing partner and I have spent a couple of mad Novembers scribbling frantically after a ridiculous goal we have set for ourselves. And holding each other accountable over the finish line.

We’re at it again this November. I’m plowing through a rewrite of the draft I started last winter. And she’s off on the adventure of a new book. (And trust me–hers is going to be good. You can say that you heard it here first.) The actual word-flow has not been quite the youthful garrulousness of that first NaNoWriMo spree. But it taught me, as I believe nothing else could have, to just keep putting the words down. One after another. That’s all we can do, really. The rest is not our business…

Reflect upon your present blessings, of which every man has many--not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some. ~Charles Dickens

In closing, I would just like to wish you all the Happiest of Thanksgivings, the crown of this month of blessings.

God be with you all, friends.

When They Ring the Golden Bells

Sunday, November 20th, 2011

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

Last night, we gathered in the home of the dearest of friends for an evening of music and fellowship. It was a celebration of God’s bounty in our lives, the most treasured and notable of which were the people that filled the rooms of our friends’ new-old house. With each year that passes, we take these loved faces less and less for granted. I seriously do not know what I would do without them, such trusted companions of sunshine and shadow, and I can hardly even begin to thank God for their influence in my life.

Every person there was a beautiful sight to my eyes. Some of the friendships represented were brand new, bright with lovely promise, while others were of a lifetime’s duration. Parents and siblings filled the circle, and the angel-fresh faces of three little girls whom Philip and I love with a devotion akin to servitude.

My friends and I sang some of the old favorites in our repertoire, with a couple of Early American “shape note” songs as an eager hat-tip to Christmas. There were readings of original poetry and essay, an exquisite selection on classical guitar, and a husband and wife duo that literally broke our hearts with the sheer beauty of their oneness expressed in words and music. The kind of music that makes you smile with your eyes full of tears.

At the end of our little program, before the ‘congregational singing’, my friend Rachel and I sang a piece that is very dear to both of our hearts, “When They Ring the Golden Bells”. I had come across a version of it years ago, a collaboration between Natalie Merchant and Karen Peris, and was immediately struck by both the beauty and the familiarity of it. I had always wanted to learn it with Rach, and we did play around with it a bit. But when my grandmother died, Rachel agreed to do the song with me at her funeral, and it was while we were practicing it that I made the connection where I had first heard it–at Rachel’s wedding, of all things. It was such a sudden, poignant illustration to me of the sweet brevity of our days, and of the glorious perspective on life and death held out to us in the Gospel. When we sang this song together at my little grandmother’s funeral, with my brother accompanying us on the guitar, all I could think about was the great Marriage Feast that was awaiting.  The real end of the Story.

Last summer we set down a few tracks of some of the duets we’d worked on, and Rachel’s long-suffering and extremely talented brother came to play the guitar for us. I can’t express how patient he was with our demands upon his prowess, alternately instructing him to speed up or slow down according to our whimsy as he strummed and plucked and picked his way through songs like, “I Saw a Maiden” and “Oh! Tell Me How to Woo Thee”.

Don’t tell anyone I’m doing this, was the look he gave us when the songs leaned too heavily on the sentimental side. But we all had a fantastic time together, and I think that when we came to “Golden Bells”, he was relieved that here, at last, was a song in which there was no dighting me in array or Fie! Nay, pritthee-ing.

My rendition of it last night was considerably less sound than the one we recorded on that sunny July day, as my voice wavered and broke a couple of times at the vast span of emotion and association connected with the song for me. I was overwhelmed with what it all meant; with the faces in the room and the faces I can’t wait to see again in heaven. And with the deathless promise of the One who “will wipe away all tears from off their faces…”

Here it is, if you’d care to hear it. It’s not perfect–at least, certainly not my part–though Rach sounds like an angel and Joseph like a master and Philip did a great job mixing it down.

When They Ring the Golden Bells

Thank God I have these people in my life. I love them so.

Fairest Isle

Saturday, November 12th, 2011

In 84, Charing Cross Road, Helene Hanff said that people going to England find exactly what they go looking for.

It’s true. It’s there.

The England we look for is the England of books and poetry and landscapes of an almost mythical loveliness. Bowered lanes and hedgerows that were familiar before we ever laid eyes on them and hilltops brooding with legends that are true. We’re seeking the almost implausible beauty of a green and pleasant land, and the music of angels in echo-haunted cathedrals.

Something draws us and something breaks our hearts when we leave. Something holds us there, even in our delight at being here. Something about England stirs within us a holy discontent, a homesickness, an untamed vein of Tookishness that never lets us forget that Life is spilling into Eternity.

In the truest sense, we are looking for Home. And while it is inexpressibly, undeniably here, it’s also there.

“It is England we love, we Americans,” she had said to her father. “What could be more natural? We belong to it—it belongs to us. I could never be convinced that the old tie of blood does not count. All nationalities have come to us since we became a nation, but most of us in the beginning came from England. We are touching about it, too. We trifle with France and labour with Germany, we sentimentalise over Italy and ecstacise over Spain—but England we love. How it moves us when we go to it, how we gush if we are simple and effusive, how we are stirred imaginatively if we are of the perceptive class. I have heard the commonest little half-educated woman say the prettiest, clumsy, emotional things about what she has seen there. A New England schoolma’am, who has made a Cook’s tour, will almost have tears in her voice as she wanders on with her commonplaces about hawthorn hedges and thatched cottages and white or red farms. Why are we not unconsciously pathetic about German cottages and Italian villas? Because we have not, in centuries past, had the habit of being born in them. It is only an English cottage and an English lane, whether white with hawthorn blossoms or bare with winter, that wakes in us that little yearning, grovelling tenderness that is so sweet. It is only nature calling us home.”

Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Shuttle

Beloved Oxford-town, as golden as ever.

Port Meadow, Oxford

The Roman Road, Dorset.

The view from the hilltop of the farm we stayed on in Dorset. I pretty much lived up here.

The exquisite Temple of Apollo folly at Stourhead Gardens, Somerset

The church at Stourhead. It was all decked out for a wedding and was fragrant with lilies and roses inside.

An idyllic September afternoon and the magic of English light.

Watching the sunset at Stourhead.

The Cobb at Lyme Regis, made famous by Lydia Musgrove's ill-judged leap in Jane Austen's Persuasion.

"Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn..."

Eggardon Hill, an Iron Age hill fort in Dorset.

"A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread..."

Kingston Lacy, a beautiful Restoration manor in Dorset.

Kingston Lacy is famous for its outstanding collection of art, including paintings by Titian and Rubens.

Montacute, a medieval manor house in Somerset.

The library at Montacute.

"Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road..."

It's there, Thanks be to God. And our souls are the better for it.

New on the shelves

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

I am excited to announce that the new collection of books, garnered during my recent travels in England, are in the Shop!

Philip and I had so much fun scouring the countryside for the authors and titles suited to my little niche of a shop—he has become quite the book scout, able to spot a first-edition Goudge or a rare Elizabeth Gaskell a mile off. As the stacks kept mounting in our little Dorset cottage, we both wondered (I, rather mildly; Philip with a bit more concentration) how under heaven we were going to get them home. Let’s just say it was an adventure, and not always of the un-harrowing sort. But they have all safely immigrated to The Colonies, now, and are ready to be dispatched to homes of their own.

People often ask me how I can bear to part with my books. Well, my answer is two-fold. For one thing, sometimes I can’t. There was definitely a small but growing pile of books destined for a forever home with me. I think I bought half of my book club reading list at my favorite Evergreen Livres in the Cotswolds, with a couple more as candidates for the next list on special recommendation from the proprietress. But there is always the immense satisfaction and joy of turning up a really beautiful book that I know one of my customers will love. I have been so blessed to be admitted into so many of your personal tastes and affinities, and I genuinely consider it an honor to connect worthy books with those who cherish them.  I have said this before, but the books in my shop are there because I can vouch for them, because I have a long-standing confidence in the author or because I know that particular title to be of merit, literary, moral, or otherwise.

There are several new Gaskells in inventory, including some really nice early 20th-century copies. I also have a number of beautiful volumes illustrated by the beloved artist, Hugh Thomson. Working chiefly with the Macmillan Press in London, Thomson typified the gentle nostalgia of such classics as Cranford and the works of Jane Austen with drawings that expressed the sentiment and sensibility of days gone by. (I, for one, admit to a distinct weakness for anything that has his name on it—I just love the way that he captured the flounce on a skirt or a coy rural meeting, awakening a reader’s imagination in perfect sympathy with the original intent of the author.)

Of course, there are new Elizabeth Goudge titles, as well as some really nice George Eliots. Also, several sweet little editions of English poetry, including Robert Herrick and George Herbert. And Dickens lovers will be happy to know that dear old ‘Boz’ is well-represented among the latest acquisitions. If I didn’t already have a copy of The Old Curiosity Shop I fear I wouldn’t be able to let that one go…

So, have a look around—remember to sort by ‘Date Added’—and please do not hesitate to let me know if you have any questions about any of the books. I will do my best to answer them. :)

Oh, England.

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

I’ve been there and back again, which will hopefully account for my relative silence around here the past month or so.

"Fairest Isle, all isles excelling..."

But I’m home now, blessedly so, even though I left the Fairest Isle behind me, and I’m overflowing with memories and stories. Once the jetlag has abated somewhat and the suitcases have been stowed and the mountains of laundry have diminished, I will be back with some of the lovely things I’ve picked up along the way.

My heart is so full and its treasures so carefully wrapped in the sprawling illegibility of ink-scribbled pages. I am looking forward to unpacking some of them here for you.

And, oh, my goodness gracious–the BOOKS! I cannot wait for you to see them! All throughout our travels I kept my eyes open for just the right sort for my little shop. I hope to begin listing them this weekend, and I promise a post-proper when I do.

Until then, my friends. God bless.

Beyond Our Ken

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

It’s rare that people pay a first visit to our old farmhouse without asking if we have ghosts.

I can hardly blame them; I wondered the same thing the first time I came here. It’s certainly haunted with its own past, standing there under its trees, brooding gently over vanished things like a wise old woman holding tryst with memory. It arrests me every time I pull in the drive.

If my husband is present I cut him a sly smile. We love to creep each other out occasionally in the night watches—an impishly easy task, with all these shadowy corners and creaking floorboards—and then laugh at ourselves the next morning. But he knows that I’m not fool enough to tempt fate with a bald-faced commitment beneath the very roof I have to sleep under that evening.

Instead, I usually reply with a shrug of the shoulders and an ambiguous, “We-ell…” that could go either way. If I’m feeling particularly sure of my company, I may quote C.S. Lewis by adding playfully that, “if my house is haunted, it’s haunted by happy ghosts.” Indeed, the folks who built this place over a century and-a-half ago were good, God-fearing Methodists, and apart from some serious Civil War action in the front yard, the rowdiest times it’s seen were probably Wednesday night prayer meetings in the front parlor.

But any home that’s been around for as long as ours has undoubtedly seen its share of things worth telling. The romance of an old house is its story, and it still happens from time to time that some descendant will show up on our doorstep bearing a thread of the tale we haven’t heard—or, at least, that version of it. Not too long ago, a grandson of the last generation of the original owners came by for a visit and held us enthralled a full summer morning with a running narrative as we wandered over the lawn, down to the barn, up to the house again and through the cool, high-ceilinged rooms. We heard the old, familiar ghost stories, told with such an artful relish that Philip and I couldn’t help exchanging a few grins of genuine glee. There were flesh-and-blood accounts, as well, tales of the men and women who had once been as alive in these rooms as we are today. The old gentleman’s stories made them live once more, if only in the sudden match-flare of the telling.

But there was one story I had never heard before. We were standing on the front porch saying our goodbyes when our guest paused and looked at me with an appeal in his eyes.

“Just one more.”

We fairly begged for it, while his wife tilted her head and shifted her purse on her arm with an indulgent smile. She must have seen that eager boy-light on his face just as plainly as we did.

“Well, it happened like this,” he began, with the drawling ease of the raconteur at home in his calling, “back in the old days it’d get so hot in the summer it was just unbearable, and the folks all used to sit out here on this porch in the evenings trying to keep cool. One night my daddy was sitting with his cousin, who’d come for a long visit. They were just rocking and talking and everything was still—it was long about sunset. All of a sudden, my daddy’s cousin jumped up with a shriek and took off running towards the road. You know the old road used to come down right through the middle of your front pasture there,” he gestured with a flourish, not waiting for a reply. “Well, my daddy just sat here watching her with his mouth gaping—he thought she’d taken a sudden fit as he couldn’t see a blamed thing. And when she came back, she was crying like her heart was broken.”

“’It was my brother,’ she said through her tears. ‘I saw him standing there right at the bend, but when I got to him, he wasn’t there anymore.’

“That would have been strange enough,” said our narrator, in a voice that sent a cold crinkle up the back of my neck, “but for the fact that they got word the next day that her brother had died unexpectedly, to the very hour and moment she’d seen him standing there at the bend in the road.”

The hair stood up on my arms and I felt the goosebumps chilling down my legs. It wasn’t fear I felt so much as awe—a trembling wonder at the thinness of the veil before which we’re all disporting our lives away with so little thought for the mysteries on the other side. I walked along the drive after our guests had gone and stood leaning on the fence, gazing at the spot where so extraordinary and inexplicable a thing had reportedly occurred. A soul taking leave of an absent loved one on the cusp of its long flight? Was it really possible?

We sat out on the porch that night, long after dark, watching the fireflies kindle their elven lamps in the trees around the house and along the old, memory-haunted roadbed through the front pasture. I eased my rocking chair back and forth and then tucked my legs up under me in the cane-bottomed seat.

“Why doesn’t it happen anymore?”

I asked it soft, whispered in the warm gloom, but my husband knew exactly what I was talking about. Why do all such stories seem relegated to the distant past? Why is the average modern life so strangely insulated from the unexplained?

Is it because we’re all inside watching TV? “Distracted from distraction by distraction”? Or have we grown too old and wise as a race to admit that there are things in this world—things Scripture is silent on and Science can’t explain—that we will never understand till we shake off this mortal coil? As Christians we are fortified by the promise that we’re peering through a glass on the eternal verities, that God in his grace has given us a view from a window the world can’t see. But it’s a dark glass, and things pass before it that our time-bound vision just can’t distinguish yet. Like a character in a George MacDonald fantasy, we’re all growing into our eyes and learning the meaning of a dual citizenship. We’re learning to see what’s at the end of our nose.

I’m no theologian, but my guess is that modern Christianity has lost much of its romance simply because we think we’re already there. We’ve talked the mystery out of it and we’ve slapped a tidy label over the imponderables. Anything that can’t be explained is suspect or tossed on the rubbish heap. We have lost our fairy birthright of the What-If.

What if souls were really permitted impossible leave-takings? What if there was life out there in the star-hung heavens, in another galaxy than our own? What if the scrim were really so thin and time so nonlinear that one could experience a sense of place deeply enough to actually share it for one fleeting moment with the ones who had once loved it as they do—or at least catch the rustle of a silken skirt in the hallway behind them?

I’m not making a case for ghosts, of course, but for the mere character of a God who can do anything. Who is more fierce, more wildly tender, more untamed and untrammeled than our craziest dreams could make him out to be.

Not different than what our Bible so faithfully tells us, but more.

We’re all trembling on the brink of a wildness that is terrifying and exquisite beyond anything our earthly experience could prepare us for. But I have to wonder if God doesn’t occasionally drop hints of the surprises he has in store: glimpses of a goodness we couldn’t bear even if we were able to conceive of it.

A few years ago I had the inexpressible privilege of watching at my grandmother’s deathbed. I was holding one of her tiny hands, still so lovely and ladylike yet strangely ashen with a marble pallor. My mother had her other hand and Daddy was at her head. I will never forget the peace of that place or the curious sense of joy that kept tugging at my grieving heart. I remember there was an April breeze coming in at the open window, lifting the sheets lightly and fanning wet cheeks, and the day outside was pale and silvery, as if too much sunlight would be an insult to our sorrow. We had been there for hours, noting the least change and talking quietly about the things we loved best about her, when suddenly I was completely overwhelmed by the thought of how beautiful it must be to die surrounded by those who love you so dearly—to be escorted thus from one love to Another. What a crown to a life, wiping away all the ravages of suffering and disease and leaving only beauty and blessing in its wake.

I saw the tired features relax; an unmistakable calm came over the dear face that had been agitated by Alzheimer’s for so many years. It was incredible—like a healing before our very eyes.

And it was then I knew beyond all doubt and misgiving that there was a Presence in that room: a Glory that would be our undoing if it were fully revealed. The air was heavy with it, yet not oppressed; I looked at my mother and I knew that she sensed it, too. I have heard people speak of such things; I have read of it in books. But I know now what their accounts have been fumbling for. I could never explain it to another. But eternity was so, so near. Or, rather, a curtain was lifted, wavered a bit, and I saw how near it’s been all along.

It was an experience that marked me for life and I thank God for such a peep behind the scenes, fleeting and fragmentary as it was. But we can’t dwell in such sublimities, of course, or we’d be no good for the ordinary blessedness of the common hours. To live unceasingly aware would be, as George Eliot so prudently put it, “like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

It is good for me, however, when I find myself too “well-wadded with stupidity”, to be shaken out of my complacent notions of a safe universe and a tame God by a nudge of the incomprehensible.

Even if it’s only a bump in the night that makes me think that the lights can stay on upstairs just this once.

originally published June 2011 on The Rabbit Room

Favorite Things ~ September Edition

Monday, September 5th, 2011

Try to remember the kind of September when life was slow and oh, so mellow... ~Tom Jones

In the old Victoria magazine, one of my most cherished departments (among a crowd of loved ones) was Favorite Things. I always saved Chimes for last, and I religiously denied myself so much as a peek at the main body of the magazine—with its ravishing spreads of Old Masters-esque photographs and seasonal quotations from the likes of Bronte and Keats flourishing across the pages in sinuous script—until the proper details of the setting were in order: tea, a favorite chair by the window and a little bite of something lovely. (If it sounds like I used to have a party for my new Victoria, then I can only say that it deserved it.) But Favorite Things was always fair game. I could lose myself in it on the way back up the driveway from the mailbox and stand propped against the kitchen counter while my family bustled their commotion around me in an oblivion of utter impunity. Favorite Things was always my gateway to the rest of the magazine, even more so than Nancy Lindemeyer’s lovely letters, which I usually read next. It set the stage, so to speak, and called forth a host of memories and ideas suitable to the season that approached. There was a magic in that column that threw a rainbow tint over the month in question, intentionally highlighting its unique little pleasures and joys, comforts to be indulged in, and the subtle shades of distinction that make a kaleidoscopic variety of a year.

(I am well aware that the new Victoria carries the same feature. But it is not the same. It’s lost the magic. For me, at least.)

It is in memory of this, and perhaps in token of the fact that the start of each new month is always a ‘beginning the world’ for me—and never more so than September!—that I have decided to commence a Favorite Things feature here at Lanier’s Books. There are so many miracles to celebrate as our year revolves: small wonders to mark and keep; mementoes to pocket in tribute to a month’s unique identity. Bits of lovely that happen to make my heart happy at a given time.

It’s all so blessedly new when we turn the page of a calendar. And even more blessedly familiar. I’d like to welcome the changes while honoring the unchanging rhythm that undergirds and makes of all our brave adventuring into a month, at heart, a homecoming.

I had the inestimable pleasure of hosting this lovely little lady for the past year as a memento of a dear friend across the sea. Her name is Mariette and her manners are just as decorous as one might expect. While I was more than happy to return her to her family upon their return from abroad, her place has felt empty, and I have been half-heartedly looking out for a replacement.

Imagine my joy, then, when I spied this dainty creature in an antique shop. She appealed to me so endearingly with that modest expression of hers that I bought her on the spot and brought her home. Her name is Babette. I just love the way that a new spot of pretty can make a whole room feel fresh.

Departing summer hath assumed
An aspect tenderly illumed,
The gentlest look of spring;
That calls from yonder leafy shade
Unfaded, yet prepared to fade,
A timely carolling.

William Wordsworth, September

Amid the longed-for September rains and the sweet decay of leaf mold, the mushrooms always start popping up like magic overnight. I love all the little colonies and clusters along the drive, some so elegant with their slender, white stalks and velvet caps, and others squat and brown and droll to the point of being ridiculous. They are all friends.

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
And only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

E. B. Browning—Aurora Leigh

I believe that for the rest of my life, September will always make me think of Maine, and one sunset in particular that seemed to sum up the full beauty and sacredness of a week of much-needed solitude with my beloved. We hid ourselves in a clapboard cabin on a remote, spruce-fringed bay, and watched the land turn mellow around us every day. And every night there was a display of fire and gold in the sky and its reflected vanguard on the sea that took my breath with the love of God. This one was at the Bass Head Light.

The breezes taste
Of apple peel.
The air is full
Of smells to feel-
Ripe fruit, old footballs,
Burning brush,
New books, erasers,
Chalk, and such.
The bee, his hive,
Well-honeyed hum,
And Mother cuts
Chrysanthemums.
Like plates washed clean
With suds, the days
Are polished with
A morning haze.

John Updike, September

Was I the only one that gained serious wardrobe inspiration from the "Land Girls" feature in Victoria magazine, September 1998? I still go back to that one each fall just to stir up ideas for a favored look of mine. I call it "English-farmgirl-chic" and it's all tweeds and head scarves and sensible shoes and sweaters. The Land Girls were simply gorgeous to me, and Victoria honored them well, in my opinion. But it wasn't all about being absolutely stunning in overalls and Wellies. They were an amazing army of women that held the lines on the homefront during WWII and literally kept England from starving while most of the men were overseas. I spoke with a lady in her eighties once who had run away from her home (and her chores) as a girl to join the Land Army. After a few weeks of grueling labor in the fields, she ran away from the Land Army back to her mother's kitchen in Manchester!

How shimmer the low flats and pastures bare,
As with her nectar Hebe Autumn fills
The bowl between me and those distant hills,
And smiles and shakes abroad her misty, tremulous hair!

Lowell, An Indian Summer Reverie

September is my favorite time of year to camp. Nights just chilly enough for a campfire and days long and languid enough to feel like summer and something sweeter. I always forget how many stars there really are until we take our Silver Turtle out under a September sky and remember what a staggering miracle of wonder it is just to be alive. I can never quite fully recapture that sensation under a proper roof.

Lord, it is time. The summer was very big. Lay thy shadow on the sundials, and on the meadows let the winds go loose. Command the last fruits that they shall be full; give them another two more southerly days, press them on to fulfillment and drive the last sweetness into the heavenly wine.

Rainer Maria Rilke

Blessed September, my friends!