I want to begin by saying a warm thank you for the outpouring of excitement and encouragement attendant upon the announcement of my book earlier this week. If it weren’t for all of you, I wouldn’t have had the courage to let it out into the world. Thank you for celebrating this happy milestone with me, and for sharing the journey. You really can’t know what it means. I am so grateful.
The following is an excerpt from a talk I gave at Hutchmoot last October, and I wanted to share it here as both a witness to you and a reminder to myself of how I’ve grown to see my calling as a writer. I know I’m entrusting it to kindred hearts in this place. Again, my friends–thank you.
Last August I was a slump. It had been one of the hardest seasons of my life, and I was living through the three remaining weeks of exile before my husband and I traveled to the coast, to an island that is my spiritual home if there ever was one. I was treading water, really. And in a total funk with my writing. Anyway, before we went I was sitting in the vet’s office with one of my dogs or cats—I can’t remember who now—and I pulled up Sarah Clarkson’s blog on my phone. (In case you didn’t know, Sarah Clarkson is one of my favorite people on the face of this earth) I started to read her latest post, a beautiful and heartfelt piece (of course!) written from Scotland where she’d journeyed on a writing trip. (Do read the piece—it’s called “Write the Rainbow.”) She was staying with this lovely, saintly, Goudge-like old woman, and while she was there, Sarah read the woman’s memoir, a chronicle of adventuresome devotion. One afternoon, in a tumult of inner questions, Sarah set off on a long walk. Remembering how Venetia (isn’t that a lovely name?) wrote in her book that, occasionally, when she really needed guidance, God had given her mental signposts in the way of pictures or images or stories, Sarah made bold to pray for the same thing: a picture of what she was to do for Him, of what her writing life looked like. In Sarah’s own words:
Instantly, I do mean instantly, a Millais painting came to my thought. It has long enchanted me for its vivid, startling image—that of a blind young girl sitting amidst a glory of a golden field with two rainbows like stairways to heaven behind her. Not a bit of it can she see. But in that painting, a small child sits next to the blind girl, peeking out from under her cloak, neck craned in awe at the glory, telling the blind one of all the beauty. And I knew in that image that my task, as a soul, but particularly as a writer, is to be that child.
Write the rainbow, God told her. Tell this broken world of things they cannot see…
I read that and my heart burned with kindred longings. But I was also mad. Sarah was having all the adventures and, besides, she’s a better writer, so, of course, God would give her a noble charge like that! But the notion of God speaking in pictures lingered, and I made up my mind to pray about it just as soon as we got back to the coast and I had my mind and heart still again.
Accordingly, I survived the intervening weeks. And then, miraculously, we were there again on our island. One morning—I think it was the first, I was so eager—I got up quite early and went for a solitary walk along the marsh. I optimistically took my little notebook, on the off chance that I “got something.” And away I sauntered, under the summer trees, into the golden stillness and warmth of a quiet August morning. When I got to the farthest bench on the path, I sat down and looked up into the live oaks above my head.
“All right, God,” I said. “I read about how You spoke to Sarah, how You gave her a picture of what it is You want her to do. You gave her an image of her writing that was unmistakable and it was very precious to her.” Silence for a moment as I gathered courage. “I’d like to ask that You would do the same for me. I’d like a picture, please—I’d like an image of what You want to do with my writing, of what my work looks like, if anything.” More silence, and in a kind of frantic despair, I whispered, “I mean, maybe You love Sarah more than You love me—I mean, I would, if I were You—”
At that moment—I am not kidding—I was interrupted by such a gust of wind that my mouth literally dropped open. It came out of nowhere and roared through the tree over my head, sending leaves skittering from the branches in frightened little shivers. It was not so much angry as chiding—I felt reproved by it, and in the instant that it subsided, the cicadas, which had been maintaining a low, steady hum (so low and steady, in fact, as not to be noticeable) suddenly raised their pitch, and with it, their volume to a high, insistent whine, for all the world as though they, too, were protesting my petulance. It was almost deafening for a moment or two.
After it subsided, I sat in a chastened quiet.
“I’d like a picture, please,” I murmured, humbled.
Nothing came. My mind was a jumble of naught. I knew that Philip was waiting for me for breakfast, so up I got, trying not to feel discouraged. God does not always answer, of course, and when He doesn’t . . .
As I walked along back to the hotel, smiling intentionally at the beauty around me, clutching my little notebook tightly, a picture flickered into my mind: wavered, faded, materialized. And then it faded again, as I dismissed it with a smirk. Nothing more than a picture from one of my childhood books. One of my favorites, in fact, but obviously so firmly entrenched in my memory that my brain, hunting feverishly, had found it without effort. Oh well. God doesn’t have to speak to me the way He speaks to Sarah and to the saintly Scottish lady . . .
It never really occurred to me to wonder why that image, out of literally billions that must inhabit my brain. Especially when I had not seen it, or so much as thought of it in years. I can be kind of dumb that way, I guess. At any rate, a couple of weeks later I was sitting at my desk, grinding out my Hutchmoot talks—at great pain and effort, I might add. I was feeling like such a fake, a failure, a poser, a fraud . . . and I just laid my head down on my desk in complete and utter defeat.
“I just can’t do this, Lord,” I told Him. “I’m not one of these brilliant souls and I don’t know why I’m speaking at Hutchmoot and I don’t even know why I’m on The Rabbit Room…”
That kind of thing. And as I moaned and mullygrubbed, that same picture from the island morning came back into my mind. As at an audible charge, I immediately got up and went downstairs to the bookcase. I knew right where it was: The Tasha Tudor Bedtime Book, one of my all-time favorites as a little girl. I turned to the well-known page with a trembling heart (and trembling hand), and stared at the illustration of “The Star Dipper.” It was just as I remembered it: the little cottage, the girl and her mother gazing up into the night sky, the corgi at their feet—and above them in the warm blue, the radiant formation of the Big Dipper. I read the story again with tears in my eyes.
The tale goes that a little girl lives with her mother in a cottage at the edge of the wood. It has been a long, hot summer, and her mother is ill. Her mother sends her to the well to draw her up a dipper of water because she is so parched, but when the little girl endeavors to do this, she discovers that the well is dry. Undaunted, she sets out with her dipper into the dark night, certain of finding a hidden spring she knows of in the wood, the waters of which run cool and clear. Off she goes—but it is a dark night and the way is very difficult. Much more difficult than she had anticipated. It is so difficult that she fears again and again she has lost her way. The branches tear at her face and her dress, and the stones cut her feet. She is near despair, but the thought of her mother and her great thirst drives her onwards. At last she comes out into a little clearing and there it is: the Hidden Spring. With joy she fills her tin dipper with the crystal water, thinking what healing it will be to her mother. Immediately, she proceeds to return the way whence she came, but somehow it’s not quite as dark. The lowly dipper glows with a faint light, just enough to guide her way. As she goes, she encounters an old man, bent with years. He begs a drink of her from her dipper, the night is so hot and the springs are all dry. Quickly reasoning that there is enough for her dear mother and enough for the poor old gentleman, the girl lowers her dipper that the man might have a drink. The water is so pure and cold that he is revived at once, and thanks her with blessings. Resuming her passage through the wood, the little girl notices that there is even more light than before. “Could it be that the moon has risen?” she wonders. But, no—it is the light of her dipper, no longer tin, but shining silver in the dark night. Next she encounters a little dog, so tired and weary it can hardly beg, its tongue hanging out of its mouth for thirst. Without a word or a hesitation, the girl kneels and allows the dog to lap from her dipper, wherein she is thanked accordingly, as only doggies can do (and, to surmise from the illustration, he follows her home, which makes my heart glad, of course!). As she once more resumes her homeward journey, the little girl is amazed at the brightness shed across her path, for her dipper, no longer silver, has turned to a brilliant gold that lights her way. When she reaches her own cottage, she rushes in to her mother’s bedside and holds the golden dipper to her lips. The mother drinks with grateful alacrity, and the water is so cool, so refreshing and healing, that she feels well at once. The little girl sets the dipper on the table while she tells her mother of her adventures, but as she does, a kaleidoscope of light and color begins to flash about the room, like the sparkle of gems, and, suddenly, the once humble dipper flies out the window and shoots up into the night sky, no longer an earthly dipper at all, but a heavenly one, made of diamonds, so that all who saw it would remember the little girl’s hard passage through the dark wood and the loving gift she found there, bestowed with such generosity to all she met.
Before I was done with the story, I knew what God was saying to me. I knew that He wanted me to write and keep writing. And I knew what He wanted me to do with my writing, in one of the clearest, tenderest moments of insight I have ever had:
Fight your way through the Dark Wood. Find the Hidden Spring. And bring back the Sacred Water you find there for the good of all.
Find the Hidden Spring.
Since that time, the image of the Hidden Spring has given me courage again and again to just keep doing this thing—to make it my sacred charge and pilgrimage, whether a living soul validates it or not. This work is not of me—this great Thirst is not mine to quench. That doesn’t mean that the Dark Wood is not terrifying at times. But that gives me strength, even when I’m plunging through it—to know that the Spring is there and that it flows with the original Creative Love that set the stars in the heavens and calls them each by name. It’s a deep, bone-level call, at once rigorous and refreshing. I did not make the Spring; I do not fill it with water. But it’s there. And Love will show me the way to it. I can count on that. Mine is only to do as I’ve been charged and leave the matter to God.