Archive for 2012

God’s Own Fool

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012
I wrote this piece for The Rabbit Room last year, but I’m posting it here again. Because after an intensely busy spring and early summer, and a serious writing sprint on the horizon, I need to be reminded again. And again and again…

So surrender the hunger to say you must know,
Have the courage to say,’ I believe’.
For the power of paradox opens your eyes,
And blinds those who say they can see.

~Michael Card

We were driving through the city, off on literary pilgrimage in the wind and sunshine of March. Just she and I, a sisters’ spree, making holiday in the middle of the week for a day trip to Flannery O’Connor’s Andalusia.

I think I was already feeling intimidated, haunted by the great one’s ghost, as it were, for as I threaded the umpte-eleven lanes heading south out of the city and fiddled with the AC, I kept prattling nervously about ‘my little manuscript’. It seemed so absurd to call it a ‘book’, even to her, who knows my own soul. Flannery wrote books. I scribbled things in secret.

“Would you stop?”

I cut my eyes over at Liz in surprise. In the middle of I-75?

“Drop the ‘little’. It’s your manuscript. You wrote it. Quit putting it down.”

Her words went to the quick: stung, ‘hurt good’, as a wise friend is wont to say. They touched upon a nerve already tender from the Physician’s gentle prodding and forced me to face my old, old foe. Yet again.

Fear. The giant Apollyon that halts me in my tracks and sneers down all my hopes and aspirations. The paralyzing dread of failure; the horror of being misunderstood that stifles my voice and freezes my fingers above the keyboard. Fear of man’s opinion. Fear that when I open my heart’s treasures to the world, the world will be unkind and trample them underfoot. That morning I felt ill at the thought—I often do. But that’s exactly what it is: a feeling. My desire to write, to communicate and create, is not a feeling but a God-given passion; a relentless yearning that, quite frankly, at some times I rather wish would lie still, but in sublimer moments overspreads my life with the gilt and purple of love’s ambition.

It took me a long time to admit of my vocation, though I’d carried it around with me for as long as I could remember. It was hard to make peace with the extravagant expenditure of time which serious writing demands. I longed to do it; I didn’t balk at the work. But I halted over all the officially sanctioned Christian duties I ‘ought’ to be putting my hands to instead of tapping out words in solitude. I read somewhere that it takes ten years to learn to write a book. I don’t know how true that is across the board, but I felt certain it would definitely be something like it for me. It seemed too sweet a thing to be indulged in. (I know—sounds crazy. Right up there with the fear of imagining God better than He is.) I prayed and prayed for direction; if not for outright heavenly affirmation, at least the quiet sense of God’s hand resting in favor upon my head. I ‘felt His pleasure’, as Eric Liddell so poignantly put it, when I wrote—when I really got cooking and lost my head among the stars. And yet the doubts still rose like a creeping poison: How could I dare to think I’d have anything to give to the world? How could I lavish so much love and energy on a project the world may never see?

I needed to know. I needed, so desperately, to hear God say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in a way that I would not be able to forget. Nothing dramatic; just an answer to my endless question: Do You really want me to do this?

The answer came on an April evening, ordinary but for the Arcadian loveliness of spring’s wild greening and the profligate sweetness of breezes laced madly with jasmine and honeysuckle. We were sitting in the yard, my husband and I, sharing a pot of tea and a chapter in our latest read-aloud, Under the Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken. In it, our friend Van was describing the directive he had received from God to write A Severe Mercy (our favorite book of all time and the only context of our friendship with him: he’s one of the first compatriots we’ll line up to meet on the other side). He wrote of the blinding and unmistakable sense of calling, such as he had never known in his life. Of the months, from January to May, that he planned out his book and prayed and thought constantly, and of the upcoming long vacation during which he intended to make a start—never dreaming then that he would finish it in seventy-eight days.

I recall no process of thought or decision, certainly no Voice or Presence. The intention, calm, clear, firm, was simply there—a fait accompli—and thirty seconds before it had not been. That is all I know. But I believe as I believed then, that God had commanded me to write the book. It was, precisely, a vocation. In the Afterward of A Severe Mercy I put it thus: Beyond knowing, I believe (and did then) that, having been recalled to the Obedience by the nudges and, finally, by irresistible (or, at least, not resisted) grace, I was now commanded to write: vocatio.

~Sheldon Vanuaken, Under the Mercy

My heart burned within me as I heard the words in my own voice: “Beyond knowing, I believe.”

Vanauken made it clear, both from the setting and the usage, that this was no optimistic “I-deem-and-suppose” kind of believing. This was an “I-believe-in-God-the-Father-Almighty” conviction he was talking about. Not a confidence in oneself, such as to rival the supreme allegiance due only to God, but an expression of that allegiance. A living out of the wild impracticability of faith. As Christ-followers, we have to take everything at His word; there is very little we can claim to know, experientially and unambiguously, at least at the outset. But we have something better than knowing—we have faith. Rock-solid stone upon which we can build a house that will last and a life that will count for eternity. Belief is the gateway to the knowledge of God, not the other way around. It’s true, ultimately and superlatively, in our salvation. But it’s also true—interwoven into the very fabric of our identities—in the inexplicable summons of our vocation.

In that blazing moment, I had my answer. My desire—so much a part of me—was the call. And the reply could only be made in faith. Art exults in its own implausibility; it is mystery and miracle awaiting the collaboration of a human handmaiden. It is a plunge in the dark; a walking on water. If St. Peter had been looking for a firm place to set his foot before embarking across the waves, he never would have gotten out of that boat.

And neither would I.

Faith is the only antidote to the fears that I face every day when I open up my laptop. It is the lodestar towards which my barque is bent and the lifeline when I’m mired in the mully-grubs and think I’ll never write anything of any value to anyone. God has had to bring me to this place again and again, down to the point of pain. For if I believe— radically, riotously—that this is my Obedience then what have I really got to be afraid of?

I used to have a secret codename for writing—so secret that no one knew about it but me. “Stuff around the house” was what I’d volunteer when someone asked me what I was up to on a given day. I’ve long since seen how silly that is. It was only recently, however, that I recognized the inherent sinfulness of it. It’s a fear that is rooted in pride and it’s deadly to both faith and works. The Lord put His finger on that and it seared me to my back collar button: it was pride that was keeping me from telling people what I was doing with my writing. Not pontificating on the nuts and bolts, of course. That would be a different kind of pride. But the fact that I was doing it. Up until that point I would rather have died than confess to most people that I was writing a novel because, well, I mean, what if I failed? Miserably? And then they would all know about it! It is the fear of failure, masquerading as some kind of artistic modesty and propriety that has kept me from saying, “With God’s help I’m doing this crazy thing of writing a novel.” And then if it gets done, He gets the glory. And if it doesn’t? Lanier is that much more humble (I would hope) and honest, with herself and with others. And—I have to believe this—in some way that only He can fully valuate, God still gets the glory.

T.S. Eliot whittled it down to one line of exquisite poetry:

For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

I don’t want to fail. I want to sing the songs of Eden to a tired and homesick world. I want to write of beauty and truth and goodness, unashamed; I want to spin words and weave stories that will make other people know they are not alone. But even this ambition, sweet as it is, comes short of the mark. For if I truly believe that in attempting to write a book I am being obedient to something that God has placed within me, then His pleasure is the final word. It will not matter in the least whether I succeed in the temporal sense or fail utterly. In the words of the immortal Rumpole, it will be “a matter of indifference bordering on the supernatural”. Supernatural, indeed. For only faith’s vision can incite a recklessness of that ilk, that caliber of abandon that has made the disciples of Christ stand out from their kin like stark raving lunatics from the first Year of our Lord until now. God help me to be among them. 

The Apostle Paul called us ‘fools for Christ’, and I’ve always imagined he said it with a lopsided grin, a little dazed by the gorgeous insanity of it all. We are ordinary men and women aflame with immortality and moonstruck mad by a grace we can scarcely fathom. We believe crazy things and we do crazy things as a result. We are loved outrageously, beyond all wisdom and reason, and we can’t keep the joy of the joke to ourselves. The love of God has wrung all manner of impossible things from of the hearts of His people since the world began. And how much lovelier is the world because of it.

It’s embarrassing to admit how often I need reminding of these things. I smarted under my sister’s sweet reproof for days. When I told my writing partner what Liz had said, she was all over it. (Bless her heart, she’s had to put up with enough of my insecurities as it is.)

“I’m going to hold you accountable,” she declared.

She didn’t have to wait long, for scarcely a week later she heard me pull the same stunt at a dinner party, fawning and halting about my ‘lowly book’. I felt her eyes on me from the other end of the table; saw that arch tilt of her chin.

“Liz would love to hear you say that.”

I looked back at her, shamefaced. And then I did the only thing I could do—the only thing such a clownish fear deserves.

I laughed. Right in its ugly face.

And I can’t help thinking that God laughed with me.

Love Song for an Unlost Land

Thursday, May 17th, 2012

My husband and I have recently returned from an extended stay on one of the barrier islands of Georgia. I’ve been visiting this beloved part of the world my entire life, but this one island in particular for the past two decades, without a lost year among them. I honestly could not believe it when I realized that fact (and how keen we are to the signs and markers of our own existence!), but twenty years just seems like such a milestone to me. Such a tender vantage-point from which to consider not only who I’ve become over all that span of time, but also what this island has consistently meant to me–I love it like no other spot on earth. I’ve been making the attempt since I was seventeen to put into words the unique beauty of this place that is so much a part of me. Alas, never to my satisfaction–my journals are filled with half-fledged raptures and awkward attempts–but I’ve been trying, nonetheless. I can’t help it. I know this place, and I am known of it. I imagine the longing to express my love for it will haunt me for the rest of my life. And I’m so glad. But one of the things I wanted to do upon so meaningful an anniversary was to try and commit my feelings to verse. It’s not what I would like it to be, not nearly. Some things are just too precious to confine to words, and the greater my loves, the more I feel my inadequacies. I realized at the outset, though, that I can’t put everything this island is to me into one poem: it would take volumes to do that. So I honed it down, whittled my words into one clear channel. And what resulted was nothing more nor less than a love song for an Island. I hope you enjoy it.

Living God! Was there ever a world of such grace?
          The beauty of a thousand summers lives on here,
                    with the souls of all their flowers,
                              and the heady young glory of my own greening spring.

My past waits on through all the long winter of exile,
          brooding under moss-hung trees and haunting the cloistered shades
                    with a memory of joy too tender to be told.
I find it once more—and my own self with it—not in the slow gathering
          of unforgotten days, no quaint posey of remembrance, delicate and intentional,
                    but all in a rush, in one greedy draught of golden air,
                              sailing over the causeway like a homing bird.
It assails me with an embrace that takes my breath
          and never fails to summon a spring of tears.

How kindly this jeweled Isle has kept my times, whole days of deathless joys
          and hours so precious this world seems scarcely large enough to hold them.
Surely it was a dream: that age, that innocence, that marsh-skirted island itself—
          so my winter-soul speaks amid the cold despoiling of earth and tree.
                    Surely life was not meant for such sweetness.

But I have only to catch a wandering breath of jasmine on the breeze,
          or a lemon-thrill of magnolia, or even (or mostly)
                    the Maytime gift of lowly privet,
                              to doubt my own doubts and laugh my unbelief in the face.
Before such sweet convincing flee my land-locked thoughts,
          like wind-tossed foam scattering over a silver shore.

But, ah! To come—to feel the sun’s wealth falling warm upon my upturned face,
          To drink the cordial of the salt-laced air and see the curtained moss
                    waving and parting in welcome—
is resurrection; a revival of the deepest things, as real as the awakening fern
          that inhabits the boughs of these legend oaks, kissed alive by rain and dew,
                    furled fronds unwithering in a sudden flowering of green.
This is my gift, my grace of this undying place. My hoarde, my fairy gold,
          that makes me rich beyond compare.

All this, o Island-world, set like an emerald upon your filigreed marsh,
          you give without stint in astonishing candor, baring your verdant heart
                    to those who love you.
And who among such swains more ardent than I, who loves the very sand-loam
          of your soil, and your life-teeming shallows,
                    and the spring of your grass beneath my feet?

I remember that early wonder, leaping unfettered from an ingenuous soul,
          the first time I found you here, dreaming of your own youth
                    upon a golden-hazed sea.
I was young enough then to believe all the promises of spring, to feel without fear,
          so that the untested ardor of my overfull heart raced forth to greet you
                    in sister-love, lavish as you in my warmth.
No check on the reins of joy, save a maiden modesty, beneath which glowed
          the coals of a blossoming passion for life.

Oh, seventeen! To know once more your frank-eyed vision, your hopefulness
          for all life’s love! I meet you here again, amid my flowers and trees,
                    see your winsome face smiling back at me across a score of years—
unfathomable chasm! Sorrows sleep there little dreamt of in your sweet simplicity.
          But more mercies—oh, so many more—quickened and kindling to a blaze
                    by which my life is lighted.

You—whose quandaries could be settled over a cup of tea, whose starry eyes
          thought to comprehend the universe with a span—you could not know
                    what wine the world had to offer,
or with what brooding love your heart would be plowed and sown. I’d not give
          my dreams for yours, to have these losses unlearned or these mercies unmet.
                    No, not for the very stars your eyes had the witchery to command.

And yet, for all that, one liquid cadence, spilling in rapture from the throat of a bird,
          swinging low over the golden grass with a flare of scarlet wing,
                    and I am undone.
Shot through by an envoy flashing past, while he, unmindful of my wound, trails
          the music of my youth behind him in careless effulgence.
I rouse in rebellion, beating my wings against the cage of years,
          courting folly in the midst of wisdom with a mad longing for all that is past.

But if time is relentless, eternity is its thief, stealing back all our hours
          for one glorious whole, for which youth is but surety in pledge. If such
                    be the case—and joy itself teaches me it is so,
and beauty, and the clear eyes of a girl—then I’ll take such sweet stings and welcome,
          with a smile for all they signify.

Twenty years between that day and this, and I come no more alone, hedged round
          with fancy, eyes for none but my dreams. My heart has opened wide,
                    expanded, unfurled her reefed sails,
to welcome one other, dearer, o Island, than you, and you all the dearer in his light.
          I’ve given the honeysuckle of my girlhood for a womanly profusion of gardenia,
                    spilling a fragrance unlooked for, and safe visions have grown up into
                              vagabondry, even amid our quiet ways.

Lone bird no longer, I sail with him wing and wing, a twin-masted schooner,
          lithe and lighthearted, running with the wind down all that ecstasy
                    of unknown ways.
Many paths through the sea, many points of sail our lot, becoming more his
          and more my own as we chart our course through waters fair and fell.

And wander where we might, here kindly harbor awaits, where, resting
          on the green bosom of an island, we will remember all your sweet love
                    and the selves that we are in your arms.
And so, Island-love, I give back your gifts, lifting my heart as freely as yours. I’ve seen
          your marsh in full tide, offering up all that blue to the sky—serene and trusting—
                    and so you have taught me to live, unafraid.

On Possessing Beauty

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

On the second-to-the-last day of September, in the year of our Lord 2011, I came into possession of a hill in the English countryside.

I marked the event that evening with all due solemnity and appropriate honors. My husband and I had ostensibly walked out in the late afternoon to watch the sunset from a neighboring slope, but with a few quick modifications, and all the young joy of a first-time hill-owner, I adapted it into a celebration. I cut a few swinging strands of ivy that hung over the rutted path we took from our cottage, and as soon as we had spread our blanket on the grassy prospect, I sat down and began weaving them into a coronet. Philip grinned a little ruefully as I studded it with tiny thistles—the bane of any pasture-keeper’s existence; the amethysts and jasper of the woodland lapidary. But when I opened our tea caddy and produced, not the expected and well-traveled thermos and tin cups, but a bottle of champagne, his smile registered genuine surprise.

“This is a momentous occasion,” I said gravely, attempting to loosen the cork and then passing it to him in a sudden fear of flying consequences. “It’s not every day you come into property.”

I had wanted it the moment I had seen it: that green, sweeping hill, mounting in an undulation of gentle swales to a point dark among the hedges. The longing had leapt up in me with a thrill of pain and joy and I knew it had to be mine, right down to the least blade of grass. And not the hillside only, but the lane by which I had reached it, overarched by chestnuts and wizened holly trees, and the cottage it led from, buried in a steep fold of the Dorset hills. I wanted the orchard I came through and all its ripe burden of sun-warmed fruit. I wanted the sunlight itself, falling dapple-dazzling in pools of wealth upon the landscape and I wanted the blue bowl of sky arching cloud-swept above. I was inexorable in my demands: I even required the very lambs and ewes with which it was populated, grazing in ceaseless content upon its verdant slope.

The transaction had gone through without a hitch—and completely unbeknown to the thoroughly lovely and gracious couple that occupied the land. The husband, a gentleman farmer of the old school, even witnessed the proceedings from afar, hailing me from his tractor as he chugged off down into the hollow, and hadn’t the least suspicion what I was up to.

It wasn’t the first time I had experienced such an overmastering and irresistible passion for ownership. In like manner, I had snatched up every last Canova in the Louvre, and the Alpen-crowned sapphire of Italy’s Lake Como. I had collected a red sandshore on Prince Edward Island and a time-forgotten homestead in the Shenandoah Valley and an entire jewel of an island off the coast of Georgia. I had even managed to purchase, in a happy circumstance of exceedingly good fortune, a certain majestic cedar tree, gleaming out from a dawn-lit mist and hung with diamonds of rarest dew. This last was a steal, and genuinely rare, for I found it in my own backyard.

The cork flew off the bottle with a festive pop and we watched it soar straight over our heads like a springing lark. I retrieved it from the grass at my side and dropped it into the tea caddy as a souvenir.

“I’m landed gentry,” I told Philip, lifting my glass to a level with the departing sun and watching the rose-tinted light flit and sparkle among the bubbles. “In good standing and by all the inviolable laws of fairyland.”

In his elegant collection of essays, The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton observes that this insatiable yearning for acquisition in the face of overwhelming beauty is common to the human condition. “A dominant impulse on encountering beauty,” he writes, “is to wish to hold on to it, to possess it and give it weight in one’s life. There is an urge to say, ‘I was here, I saw this, and it mattered to me.’”

I had never heard it expressed that way, but de Botton’s words were a wind upon the Aeolian harp of my deepest sensibilities, and I knew by the hints of that far-off song that he was on to something. Perhaps something bigger and truer than even he imagined.

He went on to recount how John Ruskin had considered this phenomenon and had concluded that there was a respectable and thoroughly effective means of satisfying such an insatiable craving: to look deeply enough into the beauty to gain an awareness of its specific elements and effects, and to make the attempt to express it artistically.

In other words, to see, and to describe what you have seen.

This was Ruskin’s motivation, both in his teaching and his drawing manuals: to help others to see. To open their eyes and to loosen their fingers. To ‘direct people’s attention accurately to the beauty of God’s work in the material universe.’ He espoused two particular mediums for this endeavor, sketching and ‘word-painting’. (Photography was initially advocated, as well, until it became apparent to him that the general enthusiasm was leaning all-too-precariously towards the temptation to let the camera do all the seeing.) And in both cases, he was adamant on one point: natural aptitude and talent were secondary—even inferior—to open eyes. To teach a person to draw, with strokes of a pencil or with words, was to place a golden key in their hands—they would never look at the world around them the same way again. The old indifference which is the curse of familiarity would give way before the staggering particularity of nature and design. And in the effort to produce a creative response, howsoever imperfect, the beauty could be owned in a way that even physical possession could not guarantee.

My contract on the hill was drawn up in the form of a poem. Candidly, I don’t know the first thing about writing poetry; it would be generous to call all previous attempts awkward. But when I saw that hill, when I knew I must have it, I knew with equal conviction that the payment had to be made in verse. It was so far beyond my powers that the added humility of ineptitude seemed appropriate. For three hours I sat there in the sun, a blue English sky above and the beloved, satiny English grass beneath, and waited upon that work. I was aware of every flick of a bird’s wing in the hedges behind me, and the deep, concentrated indigo of the bloom-frosted sloes tangled thick within the branches. A cockerel saluted the world from some unseen farmyard far below and the uniquely pastoral, slightly ovine scent of the countryside rose up to greet me like a friend. I watched the shadow of a tree travel over the velvet surface of a mounded hill to the south and saw the wood doves fling themselves skyward with a bustle of feathers and matronly complaint. And when, at length, I collected my things and started back down towards our cottage and my tea, I could almost hear my own heart pounding in my chest, I felt so alive.

I had come to inquire and I was leaving in possession.

But ownership is not all, of course, even in this imaginative sense—there is a much deeper magic at play for the child of God. For the true apprehension of beauty, like faith itself, is an exercise in laying claim to what is already ours. There is a low door in the garden wall, and it opens on an inheritance: this is my Father’s world, and He has given it to me. All of the beauty in this astonishing universe of ours has already been lavished by a self-giving Creator. Wakefulness and effort give forth upon our birthright; seeing becomes receiving. Of this sublimity the Restoration-era minister Thomas Traherne waxes exuberant in his masterpiece of meditation, Centuries: “Your enjoyment of the world is never right,” he says, “till you so esteem it, that everything in it is more your treasure than a King’s exchequer full of Gold and Silver…till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you.”

In short, if we find ourselves wandering through this beautiful world of ours with ink-stained fingers and dreamy eyes and a slightly lopsided ivy crown, gazing about like we own the place, it’s because we do.

originally published on The Rabbit Room, February 2012

La vraie amitié

Monday, April 2nd, 2012

I hadn’t even gotten her home from the airport before we were scheming about changing her return ticket.

Five days just wasn’t long enough—not nearly sufficient to celebrate fifteen years of friendship or to reclaim the winding span of months since we’d parted.

The last time I had seen her was in a dim Oxford hallway, saying goodnight and goodbye after a magical long weekend amid the cloisters and choir-haunted chapels. There had been tea at the Old Parsonage, a stiffly formal affair in which she had been undaunted and Continental enough to require an extra helping of clotted cream for our scones—a bit of brazenness for which I blessed her with all my soul—and a lingering farewell dinner at The Trout, wherein we had laughed so hard together that my husband had snapped a picture of the two of us in tears. I had dragged her to the tip-top steeple of St. Mary the Virgin, to give her one of the best views in all the world, and we had wandered over the grounds of Lewis’ Magdalen and picked up glossy-skinned chestnuts, or marron, as she called them, to remember a golden day by.

It had been a time out of time for both of us, a curious juxtaposition of old days and new, and when we finally parted ways—Philip and I back to the States and she bound for the Chunnel and Paris and husband and bebes—I had absolutely no idea when I would see her again. I only knew that God would surprise me, as He has so many countless times before, and that it would be a gift. As always.

And so, here we were, two and-a-half years later, with five days before us which we both knew would pass like a flash, and understanding husbands on both sides urging a change of plans. (We tried—every angle we could think of. But it just wasn’t possible on such short notice. And so the five days grew all the more precious, grew to a sweet burden of golden moments which I endeavored to glean for all they were worth, even as they flew.)

I wanted to talk her ear off, and hear every detail of the intervening years—the phone is just so woefully inadequate. But I also wanted to be quiet with her. She is that kind of friend, one with whom silence is natural and always has been. I wanted to give her a breath of peace from the city’s roar and fret, and send her home to her beloved ones rested and maybe a little spoiled. It made me happy to see her there in my sunroom, knitting quietly on the windowseat—like the calm and cherished presence of a sister.

I can hardly remember a time when it was otherwise. We made a triumvirate in the old days—she, my sister and I—an immediate and cherished kinship of soul, alternately solemn and silly as the mood seized us. Though technically living with another family across town, she occupied the extra twin bed in my room as often as not, and became so much a part of our family that my brother teased her with the same merciless candor he affectionately doled out to my sister and me. She entered into our interests and our joys with an enthusiasm not only commendable, but downright endearing. A Frenchwoman to the bone, and yet she loved the States with an open heart—an honest stance she managed to effect without losing an iota of her French-ness.

She opened new worlds to me, while assimilating so easily into mine. She taught me how to throw a dinner party, and how to make the perfect crêpe. She instructed me in the subtle art of buying perfume and, more importantly, how to wear it. She introduced me to champagne, though she doesn’t care for it herself, and she brought Nutella into my life, and tea from Mariage Freres. She was as happy sketching with my sister as messing about with me in the kitchen, and she was game for any scheme we cooked up with our friends, from moonlight croquet matches to Scottish Country Dancing to Jane Austen parties in full period dress.

She read Shakespeare aloud with my family, taking multiple roles when necessary, and we laughed at her literally talking to herself in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But it was from Macbeth that we snatched a name for our threesome, in a moment of hilarity I think even the Bard would have smiled upon: The Weird Sisters, or, Les Sœurs Bizarres, as we liked to call ourselves.

There were whole nights we stayed up well into the wee sma’s, talking or messing with our hair or being ridiculous. But there were just as many—and these I remember the most—where we sat clenching hands and praying for one another in broken voices. I cherish this most about her, in a long friendship of bright-threaded goodness, that she has never shied from my darkness or my pain. She came into my life at a critical pass, and my life will never be the same as a result. That is the unknowing influence of a true friend. They simply are, and God breathes love through them in ways even they cannot imagine.

I always knew that she would marry an American. It seemed the most logical way for God to keep her close and in our lives. I seriously did not believe in her return to France all those years ago, even up until those last moments at the airport. It was so unthinkable I had convinced myself that God just simply would not let it happen. And when it did, I waited—a trifle audaciously, I’m afraid—for the miracle I knew would surely come.

There have been so many visits over the years. She was here for my last Christmas at home and barely missed my engagement to Philip by a couple of days (a fact for which I fear she has yet to forgive him). She traveled to the States for both my wedding and my sister’s. Philip and I traveled to Paris for hers. She did marry an American in the end, a good and godly man. And God planted them in France on a kingdom commission. How plainly we see our lives spread out before us at twenty-four; how clear and straightforward everything seems, when contrasted with the increasing complexity of time. There are so many dips and twists down in the valleys which we cannot see or imagine from those exalted heights of youth. Things seldom pan out just as we expect them to: friends move away or are called Home; opportunities arise for which we’d never dreamed, and seasons, sweet as they are, must give way and change.

It’s just such a strong comfort to know that, amid a shifting landscape of light and shadow, some things will never change.

This past visit was so dear, the mercy gift I’ve characteristically come to expect from a loving Father. I was able to chat online with her beautiful children and hear her describe to them the wonders of my peacocks in full, feathered glory. We dined on coquilles Saint-Jacques at a candlelit table on the porch and carried a formidable picnic to the farm. We ambled around the Square of the town where I grew up—and where we had so many misadventures back in the day—and we reminisced over midnight bowls of soup. She may have hidden behind me when I introduced her to my goats, but she understands and respects my love for them. And she spoke patient French with me, repeating things slowly when her words came out in a bewilderment of lovely incomprehensibility, and gently correcting my grammar and pronunciation when necessary. I blush to think of the times my sister and I howled with laughter over the slightest misstep she made with English—she who speaks it more beautifully and fluently than many Americans!—and the bywords we made of her adorable little sayings. What a good sport she’s been, and with what grace she has always accepted the affection of our humor at her expense! She could very easily have laughed right back at me this past visit, and countless times. But instead she praised my progress with her redoubtable language—Philip and I call it ‘tongues of angels’—and filled my head (and my mouth) with tricks and tips and charming idioms I’ve been rehearsing ever since.

And on the last night, we prayed for each other, clenching hands. I didn’t know whether to be more moved at the sorrow of yet another parting, or touched with inexpressible joy at the goodness of God in our lives. How His glories gleam out amid the folds of the hills. I never could have imagined it at twenty-four.

Je t’aime, mon ami. Vous êtes si chers à mon cœur.

All the frills

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

Oh, friends, the Spring Collection is up over at Olive & Jane! These talented milliners have been busy in the atelier and the results are simply stunning. Do go and feast your eyes on the lovely new hats and fascinators in the shop, including the launch of a precious line for little girls.

The Strawberries and Cream Lookbook is so breathtakingly delightful you’ll want to get lost in it. Just make sure your volume is turned up! (And there’s an added bonus: the featuring of a collection of bowties for men and little boys in gorgeous Liberty prints, handmade by the talented Spare Time Artisan.)

So treat yourself to a good dose of the beautiful. The joy and enthusiasm of these sister-artists are sure to spill over into your day!

p.s. in celebration of the new collection, and just in time for Easter, Olive & Jane are hosting another hat giveaway. You can find out more about it on their blog.

Trusted and True

Monday, March 12th, 2012

But friendship is precious, not only in the shade, but in the sunshine of life, and thanks to a benevolent arrangement the greater part of life is sunshine. ~Thomas Jefferson

We spent yesterday in company with a clutch of the dearest folks in the world, working together on a project for our beloved friends’ new millinery shop, Olive and Jane.

From the first morning hours it was a day of filtered spring sunlight and pale pretty dresses. Sherbet-hued balloons and hobnail vases and a pastel rainbow of antique glass compotes. Vintage aprons to spare, and perhaps an appearance of a certain Silver Girl, of whom we’re all most fond.

There was beauty everywhere I turned my eyes: from the small army of children romping and rolling in the grass in party frocks and wee-sized bowties, to the exquisite and exclusive new creations my friends had hand-crafted (oh, my heavenly days, I cannot wait for you to see them!), to the faces of my friends themselves—most beautiful of all to my grateful gaze.

When the shadows grew long-fingered and the late sunlight came in a tide of gold, we all flopped, sunburned and exhausted, into sling-backed chairs and toasted a day’s work with a celebratory glass of wine. To hear the laughter pealing out from our small circle, the shrieks of mirth over misadventures both past and present, one might be seriously tempted to imagine that the company assembled had never known a moment’s sadness or perplexity. It even struck me as I sat there in the midst of it all, feeding the merry banter with absurdities and ‘do-you-remembers’, how far the sunny moment seemed from even the hint of shadow.

But the reality is—I acknowledged it with a stab of grateful joy—that it’s the shadows themselves that have made such a fellowship possible. These women have walked with me through some of the darkest passes of my life. They have told me the truth when my soul was parched for it—they have not only spoken God’s love to me, they have lived it in the flesh.

They are the ones I call when I have good news. But I also call them when sorrow is crushing and when the burden of the day is too heavy to be carried alone. Beyond all that, they love me so well (heaven knows why!) that they are not afraid to press through my insecure hedges of “I’m fine” with a persistent, “No. Tell me how you really are.”

They have celebrated my joys as if they were their own, and they have wrestled in prayer for me to the point of tears. We have sung together at happy times, like Christmas and our own little made-up holidays, and at tender ones, like my grandmother’s funeral. We have dragged each other into some ridiculous scrapes, mostly involving vintage clothing of some description, and we have helped each other out of jams, often in the form of major house renovations gone haywire.

The underside of this bright-winged happiness is a dun-colored vulnerability and trust, seemingly prosaic, but utterly requisite for real friendship. I was talking to someone the other day who likened a particular burden in life to the job of carrying a piano.

“It’s hard enough for five or six,” he said, “but it’s impossible with only one or two.”

My eyes filled with tears at the thought, because I knew with the witness of the past and the confidence of the present, that if there are any pianos to be carried in my future, literal or figurative, these friends of mine will be at my side.

And even in the midst of pain or toil, they’ll have me laughing.

Befeathered and Bespoke

Monday, February 13th, 2012

The Millinery Shop by Degas

There are few things in life I love to celebrate more than the flowering of a dear friend’s passion. And, on this occasion, the joy is more than doubled, because it’s two friends I get to celebrate at once!

Sisters Katie Rambo Eaker and Amy Rambo are honestly two of my favorite people on the face of this earth. Our friendship is deep-rooted and of long-standing. (I won’t mention the fact that I used to teach Katie piano lessons when she was in high school, or that I babysat Amy!) The ties that knit our hearts in close communion are so precious to me, and extend beyond even our own kinship. Someone once asked, observing Katie’s and my incessant banter of memories and jokes at a party, just how we knew each other. We paused, exchanged slightly bemused expressions across the table. I spoke up at last, and with the utmost sincerity:

“Our great-great-great grandmothers were friends.”

Simply a more direct way of stating the fact that the lives of our kinfolk were intertwined four generations back (I’ve seen the neighboring plats on an old map) and that the tradition continues to this day. I truly count Katie and Amy among my dearest friends.

If there’s one thing that these two ladies exude, after a love for Jesus and a radiant joy in life, it is style. They are two of the classiest women I know. They embrace their femininity in a way that is truly inspiring, and they embody the time-honored art of elegance in everything they put their hands to—and most especially in their dress.

One day last spring, I had a few friends over for tea. It was a festal occasion in one lady’s honor, and, though a small affair, we had pulled out all the stops. I hauled my silver tea service out on the front porch and set the table with May roses and china cups. Everyone came in their sweet spring finery and we were chatting and catching up when one last car pulled in the driveway and circled around to the front of the house. Katie and Amy got out, and as they started up the walk, everyone stopped and stared. They looked stunning, as always, but there was something especially chic in their aspect, something a little bit more. Not too much, but just right. A crowning touch of elegance. For perched on their heads, above carefully coiffed hair, were the most cunning little hats we had ever seen: bits of feathers and diaphanous net and artfully arranged fabrics.

Fascinators.

The ladies on my front porch that day went wild—everybody wanted one. They were so charming, so womanly. And it was then that these two sisters confessed to the company assembled that what had begun as an experiment in creativity one candlelit evening was blossoming before their very eyes into a business.

It gives me the utmost joy to announce that today my dear friends’ dream has become a reality.

Olive and Jane Millinery has officially opened its doors! And they are celebrating with a virtual Valentine’s party. They are giving away one of their exquisite fascinators on Friday, February 17th at 10 pm EST. All they are asking is that you share the love for Olive and Jane via social media and then let them know how you helped get the word out. Go and visit their beautiful website and read the story behind their name. Browse their breathtaking collections. And tell your friends! Here are some of the ways you can celebrate this special day along with Olive and Jane:

  • ~Pin some of their images on Pinterest with the tag #iloveOliveandJane and follow them there.
  • ~Post about them on Facebook and like them there.
  • ~Blog about them.
  • ~Tweet about them and follow them there.

You can read more about the giveaway here.

It really is so lovely, in this day and age of off-the-rack everything, to find someone brave enough and passionate enough to invest hours of their own craftsmanship into something beautiful. Just because it’s beautiful. The spirit of the women behind Olive and Jane is expressed in this heartfelt mission statement:

Our hope for each and every piece created is that the love for beauty that went into it will bless the life of the person who receives it.

Favorite Things ~ January Edition

Monday, January 30th, 2012

Lucy au repos

January is for hibernating.

A friend said that in an email the other day and my heart warmed with her understanding and sympathy. For many folks, January is a new beginning, a fresh leap off into resolutions and enthusiasms. But for me it is a deep dormancy. All the things I put off during the happy chaos of the holidays must needs be attended to, of course. The wreck of my schedule has to be hauled up and inspected for repairs, and the daily round of work and rest resumed. But nothing desperate or urgent—not in January. No unnecessary deadlines; no high-flown expectations. The energy I give so gladly to the celebration of Christmas has to be replenished somehow, I’ve learned, and I have to make room for the gentle melancholy that always accompanies the close of such a happy time. I’ve actually come to anticipate January in its own right as a season of self-nurturing after such a season of self-giving. They both have their place, and I am grateful that this January has been a space of quiet within which to get my bearings again, consult my maps, and make ready for open waters once more.

Twelfth Night, 2012

I took my own sweet time wrapping beloved decorations in tissue paper for another year and winding lustrous ribbons on their spools. And I’m almost finished with my thank you notes!

Counts and recounts of my grandmother’s silver which I borrowed from my mother for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day festivities, and the half-happy, half-sad replacement of all the little bits and bots that were stowed in favor of crèches and bottle brush trees—these have been the major accomplishments of this month. Oh, and a wild and free frenzy of journaling. There is space now in that overstuffed head of mine for new thoughts to seed and old thoughts to take root. (And now, if I could just go for about a month or two without any new ideas, perhaps I’d have a chance of catching up on the ones I’ve already had!)

Good company: Lamb, Traherne and Goudge

Books have been my gentle companions this month. The essays of Charles Lamb, Elizabeth Goudge’s autobiography, Thomas Traherne’s quietly majestic Centuries.

The first Lord Peter Wimsey detective novel, published in 1923

Philip and I have also started a new Lord Peter Wimsey novel, Whose Body? Dorothy Sayers is an old friend, but we’ve savored her detective stories slowly over the years, in the face of the very real temptation to race through them all in a mad surfeit of enjoyment. We hate to think of a time when there’s no new Lord Peter story on our horizon, but I imagine by then we’ll have sufficient distance to start them all over again. (But even at this point in our Wimsey career, we both think it safe to say that none will ever eclipse Gaudy Night.)

french studies

I have really loved resuming my study of French now that things have settled down a bit. (The only real ‘studying’ I did in December was learning a few French carols.) It’s been a joy with charming old readers, an exquisite book which I received as a Christmas gift from a dear friend, and a husband with whom to converse about one’s day en français.

Kilmeny of the Orchard, Low Door Press 2011

Low Door Press will start rolling again in February. I am so excited to have my hands in the bookbinding process once more, and to turn out more copies of Kilmeny of the Orchard. And I am also in the serious planning stages of the next project!

This old girl was so dirty when I found her that Philip wasn't too sure. She sure cleaned up beautifully.

I just have to share one of my newest treasures, this Lake platter that I picked up in a junk shop in Devon for a few pounds. I rescued it from its grime-covered condition and made it my carry-on coming home on the airplane—I was too worried that it would get broken in my suitcase. Besides, my suitcase was filled with books! This dear old platter has already instated itself as an heirloom: I used it to serve both my Thanksgiving turkey and my Christmas ham!

And, finally, we saw a movie Saturday night that I am still glowing over. The Artist is a sheer miracle of old Hollywood enchantment and I loved every second of it. It felt very surreal to be sitting in a 21st-century theater watching a film that looked and felt like it had been made in the 1920s. This movie is a love song to the classic art of film, and to the talented men and women who made the magic. A dashing hero, a gorgeous and spirited leading lady, a tender love story and all the beauty and glamour of radiant black and white–I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Lo, how a Rose

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

Furrows, be glad. Though earth is bare,
One more seed is planted there:
Give up your strength the seed to nourish,
That in course the flower may flourish.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Rose, is on the way.

Eleanor Farjeon

It has been a Christmas of gold and silver dawns, spiced keen and fragrant by frost; of hushed twilights that wash my little world in a glory of rose-light before fading into the heart-piercing loveliness of a lavender dusk. It has been a Christmas for French carols at the piano and reunions so happy they hurt and red velvet ribbons tied around oranges and homemade candy with specific loved ones in mind. A Christmas of pretty dresses and lazy breakfasts by the fire. Of catnip mice and flaming plum pudding and a host of small children in Christmas finery chasing one another around my backyard in the pale gilding of a winter afternoon. It has been a Christmas for bright new things and blessed old things.

And it has been a Christmas for roses.

I knew that well before the season was upon us, back in the clear, longing spaces of November. I knew it by the thrill of Hope that is the faithful herald of this most beloved of times. And I knew it by the searing stab of that thorn which I’ve carried with me for so long and which only seems to press more deeply into my heart during this season which I love best. I can trace the state of my soul in years past by the Christmases which called for roses. And this was definitely one of them.

Roses at Christmas are my personal statement of faith; my version of perfume, lavished before the coming King. They are my profession that all is well—not because life is perfect or every desire has been accomplished, but because He is. Because He came among us, and He’s still here when Christmas is over. They are my confession that Christmas is not about me and that the wilderness will blossom as the rose, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. I need to be reminded of these things—often. And I am such a visual person that the sight of roses mingling among my Christmas greens is a constant grounding, a tangible witness of His beauty, present even in the desert places of our lives.

Thou meetest him that rejoiceth, and worketh righteousness… For years now that has been the standard I have borne before me in all my preparations for Christmas; a torch flaming in the darkness. And He does meet us, in our most broken places. And He does work wonders—miracles—even if they are so hidden in the depths of our hearts only He can see them. But miracles, no less.

Christmas roses are my way of taking joy; a wordless ‘thank You’ and ‘I love You’ and ‘Come quickly’ spelled out in blood-red blooms couched amid a nest of ivy leaves and thorn-crowned holly.

The frozen air perfuming
That tiny bloom doth swell ;
Its rays the night illuming,
The darkness quite dispel.
O flower beyond compare
Bloom in our heart’s midwinter;
Restore the springtime there.

Theodore Baker