Archive for 2016

Advent: a sonnet

Tuesday, December 20th, 2016

I had the honor and pleasure of teaming up with illustrator Jonny Jimison for The Rabbit Room‘s collaborative Advent project pairing poets and artists. Jonny did a fantastic job illustrating my sonnet:


Also, here’s something fun: a podcast I recorded with Joshua Klos of Refracted Reality. It’s an audio version of my essay “In Praise of the House Party,” which originally appeared on the Art House America blog back in December of 2013. I had a great time recording it–and Joshua worked wonders with music and sound effects. I hope you enjoy it! 🙂

It’s almost Christmas, friends–can you believe it?

Heart’s Open Door

Friday, December 9th, 2016


Hello, friends. I hope you’re each enjoying this second week of Advent. Second week already? How can it be?

One of the interesting things about being a writer is that you tend to experience and observe life at the same time. I’ve generally got a commentary humming along in the back (oftentimes front!) of my mind; I find myself reaching instinctively after words and phrases to express whatever it is that I happen to be doing/thinking/feeling at a particular moment. I imagine a lot of this is rooted in a lifelong habit of compulsive journaling. But I also know that a huge part of this two-fold mindset originated with this little space here at Lanier’s Books. It was over ten years ago that my husband urged me to set up this site, and since then it’s gone from me tapping away at words I thought no one would ever see, to a kindly circle of kindred spirits who let me know that they care about what happens here, even when I don’t post an update for months. And because I know you are there, I find myself constantly formulating ways of telling you what’s going on, even if it never makes it to the screen.

My history with blogging has been one of fits and starts—while I’m always working away at something in the background, be it story, essay, or academic deadline, I tend to swing between irregular consistency and utter silence around here. It means so much to me that so many of you have stuck it out through those silences, and welcomed my words when they return. Quite frankly, it amazes me. Thank you so much.

Over the years, some of the warmest and most enthusiastic feedback I’ve gotten has been on my Advent and Christmas postings, even though, to me, they seem rare as hen’s teeth amid the other scribblings with which these pages are filled. The trouble is, I love to write about Christmas—I long to write about as it’s happening, and to share my happiness, challenges, sorrows and joys here with you—but my days are so filled with Christmas itself, I never seem to find the time to wedge in as many posts or notes or recipes in this place as I would like. What Christmas and Advent pieces there are I’ve generally fought into existence, simply because whatever it is that I wanted to say would not let me rest until I’d hammered it out—and because I’ve wanted to connect here with you each year. (Case in point: I literally wrote this piece last December as I was rolling out the children’s requisite Christmas Eve gingerbread men—I had my laptop on one side of the kitchen table, and my rolling pin and Silpat on the other! I kept turning phrases and concepts over and over as I worked, dashing back and forth between keyboard and cookie dough. It was a sight to behold, I assure you.)

But I’m always so touched to hear how my Advent posts have touched you. This is seriously my favorite time of year, not only because of the sentiment and tradition attached to it, but because the rock-solid mysteries upon which my faith is built seem clearer and closer—to my heart and to my imagination—than at any other time. The air of Advent seems charged with a breathless hush to me, thronged with an invisible, expectant host. The world around me, most notably the world of my own little farm, seems so crowded with symbol and paradox my heart is pierced at every turn. I’ve often dreamed about writing an Advent/Christmas book; my desktop is cluttered with folders of notes and ideas and scraps of ephemera I’ve gathered over the years. But it’s hard (I would say impossible, even) for me to recapture the aching wonder of it all, the mystery, the beauty, in February or March—much less August or September. The only way for me to write about Christmas the way I want to is to write in the middle of it.


Right in the middle of cookies and caramels, of making beds and decorating guest rooms and setting tables and laying fires. Deep in the teatime gatherings and the dinner parties and the quiet evenings by the fire—notebook in hand to catch Love’s sweet impressions as they fly.

Crazy, right?

Up until this point, it’s been an impossible dream. The temptation to overdo in all my joy has been a major force to be reckoned with—and one against which I arm myself every year with prayer and the accountability of trusted friends. In the early mornings I seek and sit with the exquisite paradox of God with us; throughout the days of Advent I try to tether my heart to the earth-shattering meaning in all the merriment and preparation—sometimes successfully, sometimes not so much. In the evenings I endeavor to rest and enjoy the comforts of the season with my husband and with family and friends. But to try and craft legible prose amid this sweet round? Well, it rarely happens, that’s all.

When Laura suggested we team up on the sweetly ambitious project of a dedicated Advent and Christmas blog, my first reaction was, “That’s a beautiful idea, but there’s no way we’d have time.” But the more I turned it over in my mind, the more I realized that such a committed sprint of words might be just what I needed. My husband’s response was less overthought. “Are you kidding?” he asked me. “This is right up your alley. What are you waiting for?”

Laura is just as idealistic—and just as tender towards Christmas as I am. What’s more, she has a full plate of responsibilities on her hands. I figured if Laura could do it, and still have the kind of beautiful and quiet holiday she wanted to, then nothing was holding me back either. From the beginning it’s been a wildly fun undertaking, in which we’ve indulged every delight and prodded every sentiment for deeper meaning. I knew it would be a joy to work on something like this with such a dear friend—but what I didn’t realize was that it had the potential to make my Christmas.

I feel like I’m walking around with every sense wide awake. I’m overflowing with inspiration, and the more I spill ideas onto the page, the faster my mind brims up with others. It’s astonishing, but I’m finding that all the old writing advice is not only true, it’s wonderfully simple: The more you write, the more you write.

And so, I’m moving through these precious days with a notebook and pencil in hand, carving out time to write and reflect during my busiest time of year. It’s meant that some tasks have been delayed, or their necessity called into question. But, more importantly, it’s meant that perfectionism doesn’t get the final word, and that busyness doesn’t claim what’s meant to be a deeply sacred time. I’ve learned so much this year about what works for me as writer (and a person), and what doesn’t. And this glad and golden adventure has confirmed the joy of my calling in a wholly unprecedented way.



I was talking to a friend a few months ago about projects and aspirations, when, right in the middle of our conversation I had the keenest image of my writing as it’s meant to be under God: an act of hospitality. To usher others into a warm place of words and welcome; to not just tell people they’re not alone, but to show them by creating a space out of the winds of the world in which their native longings are safe, and in which they’ll find a friendly hand (print or virtual) to hold against the gathering dark. The writers whose works mean the most to me are the ones whose open door of a heart has made them seem like old and dear friends. There’s nothing I’d love better than to pay such a debt forward with word offerings of my own.

I want to thank all of you who have joined us over at Golden Hours the past couple of weeks. It has meant more than I can say to see so many friendly faces there. You never cease to show me I’m not alone.


May your Adventide be blessed, friends, graced with beauty and bright with the breaking hope of our coming Lord!

Thanksgiving Greetings…and a Very Merry Surprise!

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2016

merry-heartOh, friends.

Can it really be Thanksgiving Eve already? I make no secret of how much I love this day--it’s like my house and I together waken to all the practical (and delightfully impractical!) goodness of the season. My rooms feel it as keenly as I do, eager to swing wide heart and doors to our dear ones.

I’ve been in the kitchen All Day Long, with four vegetable casseroles, two pies, and twelve little jars of cranberry conserve to show for it. Tonight I’ll be studying my turkey recipe for the umpteenth time (a Bon Appetit gem from 2002), and tomorrow there will be even more vegetables to prepare, and candles to light and matches to touch to ready fires (even if it is 70 degrees outside!).  And then the sweet melee of doorbells and children and laughter…and a few tears.

And after that…the glad-yet-solemn tumble into Advent. I can’t believe it–but I cannot wait.

I want you to know that as I’m pausing here with my tea, I’m thinking fondly of the beautiful people that this little corner of the web has brought into my life. I am truly thankful for each of you–for your presence, your comments, your encouragement, and for the fact that my words have found safe harbor in such generous hearts.

And it’s for this reason that I am absolutely shimmering with excitement this evening over a lovely surprise I’ve been dying to share with you all:

My friend Laura and I have more things in common than I can count (I call her my Yankee soul twin). We’re writers, believers in beauty, battered-but-tenacious idealists and not-so-hopeless romantics. What’s more, we’re both absolutely head-over-heels in love with Christmas. Laura gets Christmas, and all the bright sadness of Advent leading up to it. For a decade and-a-half we’ve been hashing out our beliefs, ideals, and Christmas spirit fails via emails, texts, and hundreds (if not thousands) of cups of tea or cardamom-laced cocoa.

This Christmas, we’ve decided to give folks a peep behind the scenes at all the merriment, the pep talks, the tried-and-true, and the glorious flops. In other words, we’ve committed together to chronicle our way through this season as honestly and intentionally as we can–and we would love for you to join us!

Allow me to present:

Golden Hours: a blog devoted entirely to Christmas!

I know I have a lot of kindred spirits in Christmas-love in this space, so I really could not wait to tell you all about this scheme of ours. (And if you don’t know Laura yet, you’re going to love her!) Each day we will be posting recipes, things that worked, things that seriously didn’t work, old favorites and new discoveries. More importantly, we’ll be reminding each other, out in public, as it were, to keep our hearts anchored in the eternal, even as we’re celebrating the heck out of the temporal.

Consider this my early Christmas card, friends, with an invitation tucked inside. You’re as welcome as can be to this little party of ours!christmas-book

Staff Work of the Omnipotence

Friday, October 28th, 2016


I gave into a cold last weekend. It had been pursuing me for days, ever since we got home from the yearly gathering of our tribe in Nashville, but it finally caught up with me. This meant, among other things, that we did not go to the boat for the weekend, and we did not go a friend’s breathtaking annual autumn feast—both of which made me sad. Instead, we piddled around the house on Saturday, and called it an early night with a couple of ghost stories by the fire. On Sunday, Philip set up the vintage deck chairs under the filtered shade of the water oak in the backyard, and I installed my pajama-clad self in one of them, equipped with reading glasses, a plaid wool throw over my legs, a rotation of cats in my lap, and a book in my hand.

Thus accoutered, I proceeded to do something I haven’t done in I don’t know when. I read. All Day Long. From cinnamon-laced morning coffee, to my late afternoon tea tray, I stayed right in that chair feasting on words, gulping them, devouring them, pausing to savor the taste of them, then tucking in again with increasing appetite. I was aware of the dogs romping in the sunshine across the lawn, and my husband reading a history of Jekyll Island close at hand; every now and then my senses would thrill to the poignant scent of eleagnus, wafting down on a light breeze from the corner of the property where it thrives. Occasionally, I would glance up to smile at my sheep ambling across the pasture, or to honor the warmth of the sun on my face and the blue October sky beyond.

But, for the most part, I lived in that book. And being that the book in question was Diana Glyer’s Bandersnatch, I lived, essentially in Oxford.

Bandersnatch is the story of the creative collaboration between C.S. Lewis. J.R.R. Tolkien, and the rest of the Inklings, and it caught me up, carrying me along on a ride of unmitigated delight. I could not put it down until I had polished off the very last word—start to finish, I read that book in one sitting. This is significant to me on many levels, primarily because I just don’t read like that—or, at least, not often, and certainly not lately. Truth be told, this is the first book I’ve read straight through—the first book I’ve read easily—since Daddy died last summer. Sure, I’ve written a few heartfelt reviews, and I’ve done a massive amount of reading for school, but the mental effort was disproportionately titanic and I could only digest small chunks at a time. It took a dear friend and mentor to point out to me back in the summer that my “lack of focus” was more symptomatic of grief than I’d given myself grace for, and her words were permission to ease up on myself a bit. But life has been moving so fast lately, and my thoughts along with it, that I’d started to fear this distractibility was becoming chronic.

I’ve always been the kind of girl with five to seven books on the bedside table. Philip built me a bookcase in the Airstream so that I could travel with a few shelves of my favorites, and the designated “library corner” of our sailboat cabin exceeded its bounds almost immediately. There’s nothing I love more than to spread a quilt under the walnut trees in the backyard and meander through a stack of titles that happens to strike my fancy, dipping alternately into story, essay, poetry in turn. Trouble is, for the past year and more, it’s been just that: dips. I’ve been splashing my toes in the water of words, running my hands through currents of grand ideas and noble thoughts, without diving in and swimming around for long, lost periods of time. (More often than not these days, I fall asleep on the blanket before I’ve made up my mind which book to sample.)

My studies, and the connections they are opening in my mind, are a breathlessly exciting pleasure (I’m not kidding—my heart literally pounds faster when ideas flower, expand, meet one another), and I’m deeply grateful. But it’s sobering to realize that were it not for recent papers and assignments and deadlines, I wouldn’t have been reading anything. That actually frightens me a bit, to consider how a habit of grief becomes just that—a habit.

I didn’t set out to reign in my mental habits yesterday, or to progress from one stage of grief to another (grief doesn’t get easier, for the record, it only gets different). I was tired and sick, and I had an idle day and an intriguing book to hand. That was all. (Full disclosure #1: I’ve been looking close at my days lately, shaping my vision with hard intention, identifying the requirements for the kind of life I want to live, and one unavoidable fact that has arisen is the need for a weekly Sabbath; to honor the limitation of a six-day work week, not just with smiling lip-service, but with actual, physical and mental rest. Crazy, I know. Full disclosure #2: When I selected my ‘intriguing book’ from the shelf, my fingers visibly twitched over three or four alternatives, ‘just in case my brain got tired,’ or in case the book I committed to—through no fault of its own—failed to hold my flock-of-rice-birds attention span. It was with no small effort that I pulled back my hand and walked away with only one book. The book I was actually going to read.)

And thus, the hours passed in joyful immersion. From time to time I would look up from the pages of Oxford to jot a note or two—there was just so much about this book that I wanted to remember and act upon. It made me want to read more, and it made me want to write more, which is highest praise for a book, in my opinion. (And it also nudged me gently with the thought that perhaps my recent and paralyzing difficulty in stringing words together has as much to do with not reading as it does with grief. I mean, Jane Kenyon was right—if you want to write good sentences, you have to stuff your head full of good sentences. Or something like that.)

This dear book came into my life at just the right moment, breathing upon the embers of my own ambitions, underscoring my resolve to connect more faithfully and intentionally with my own little tribe of sub-creators, as Tolkien called us. It made me want to grab my (ridiculously talented) writing partner’s hand and say, “How can I help you get your words out into the world? What can I do?!”

It made me see afresh the value and necessity of healthy critique in the writing process—still so hard for me to stomach after all these years, even with the encouragement I’ve received. But it was extremely eye-opening to realize just how actively the Inklings engaged with each other’s work—they didn’t just sit around puffing on pipes, spouting off gorgeously polished manuscripts. They rolled up their sleeves and helped each other build their books. They praised; they critiqued (sometimes brutally); they wrote reviews; they shared unfinished works. Think about that for a moment: there was a time when The Lord of the Rings was just a jumble of elven lore and hobbit talk. When the main character was named Bingo, of all things. Times when Tolkien had no idea where the story was going; times he gave up altogether.

But C.S. Lewis wouldn’t let him give up. For something like 17 years Tolkien’s friends walked with him through fits and false starts and hair-pulling dead ends. I have always stood amazed at Tolkien’s genius, marveled at his high, pure, perfect language, and the epic nature of his story arc. And I’ve always pictured the story flowing out of him in an ordered stream of prearranged brilliance, a clear, crystal torrent of cause and effect and deep meaning.

But that’s not how it was at all. No matter how perfect the end result, the writing of it was literally a mess. And it would not have been written at all without the express investment of C.S. Lewis and the accountability/feedback/audience of the Inklings. Tolkien struggled mightily to finish that book, in the face of enormous self-doubt and discouragement, fearing that even if he did finish it, no one would publish such a thick tome in the days of post-war paper shortages. But he had a band of brothers who believed in him. And that made all the difference.

Not coincidentally (is there really such a thing as coincidence?), Diana Glyer was the keynote speaker at Hutchmoot this year, and I smiled and wept all the way through her speech. It was one of the most well-crafted talks I have ever heard, delivered with such warmth I think everyone in the room felt like she was talking to them alone. I was deeply touched by the story she told about the Inklings collecting scraps of paper for each during WWII and post-war scarcity, bringing them quietly to the meetings for whomever had need. That was one of the most beautiful pictures of Christians creating in community that I have ever heard. She told us how interesting it is to go back over the early manuscripts, and find a page of The Lord of the Rings written on the back side of one of Lewis’ grocery lists.

I also loved what she said about their accountability: “I think The Lord of the Rings was written on Wednesdays,” she said with a grin. (The Inklings met on Thursdays.)

Through her speech, and then through her book, Diana set my heart on fire. She made me want to brandish my #2 pencils like a sword, splitting the darkness with words good and true. And she reminded me that company on this journey isn’t just a blessing—it’s a necessity.

“Creative accomplishment is a messy process,” she said.

But collaborative fellowship is the simplest thing in the world: “As simple as two people meeting together, regularly and faithfully.”

The Inklings began with Tolkien daring to show one of his poems to Lewis, and Lewis responding, not only with an outpouring of praise and critique, but, most generously of all, with some poems of his own.

Diana explained how the whole act of creation is an exchange of resonance—how we all need other people to connect with our work, hum with its themes like a plucked string, and then amplify the music with a fullness it could not have achieved in its own.

I couldn’t help but think of the kind souls reading here at Lanier’s Books, who not only take the time to peruse my words, but offer back the stupendous gift of kinship and sympathy. I know I’ve said this before, but I mean it more than ever—you have given me so much courage. You’ve let me make mistakes, say things awkwardly or obtusely; you’ve given me permission to stretch, edit, ask questions, grow. The internet can seem like a vast, scary chasm of unceasing noise—but because of you, this little place has always felt like a firelit room full of friends. You have absolutely no idea what this has meant to me.

And it’s no accident. I tend to agree with Charles Williams, that, as Christians and as members of the human race, we’re pretty much all in all of it together. No matter how alone we may feel at times, we’re part of a Fellowship, in which the magic of timely words and faithful connections and divine appointments is weaving us together in a Story without end. Nothing we do (or fail to do) affects us in isolation; no act of kindness or generosity ends with its own performance. And no intersection with another soul is haphazard. Not really.

No, I don’t believe there’s such a thing as coincidence, be it the books we read or the “company we keep.” There’s a whole lot more going on here than mere chance can account for. When Charles Williams and C.S. Lewis discovered the ‘coincidence’ that they had been admiring one another’s books at exactly the same moment in time, and that their exuberant letters of response all but crossed in the mail, Williams never doubted Who was at the bottom of it all. His summary of the matter to Lewis was unambiguous: “My admiration for the staff work of the Omnipotence rises every day.”

Mine does, too.

New Books Today! (And a Very Silly Story…)

Tuesday, September 6th, 2016

Greetings, friends!

I so appreciated the enthusiastic response to my “Proper Introductions” post on Gladys Taber last week! It was heart-warming to hear how many of you share an affection for her writings. She is such a gentling influence; decades after her death, her words continue to promote peace in an unsettling time and to point our eyes in the direction of the beauties right before us. I have the greatest esteem for Gladys–it makes me glad to know that so many of you do, as well.

And I’m happy to say that, among a few other titles, I’m listing two more of Gladys Taber’s books today:

IMG_2442The Book of Stillmeadow, (SOLD) the 1930’s “round-the-calendar” record of the early days at Taber’s Connecticut farm, crammed, characteristically, with cats and spaniels and forays into the garden and firelit evenings. Based on her Ladies’ Home Journal column, “Diary of Domesticity,” this title was reprinted in the 1970s, but the older ones are getting difficult to find. The one I’m listing today is a 1948 third printing, and while it’s seen some love, it’s still a sturdy and collectible copy. A previous owner has thoughtfully marked her favorite passages–I feel a certain kinship with her as I leaf through the pages and read over the bits that meant the most to her, whoever she was…


The Stillmeadow Road, (SOLD) the seventh title in the Stillmeadow series. Originally published in 1959 this is a 1962 second impression. According to Taber, “part of The Stillmeadow Road was written when Stillmeadow was snowbound. The pipes were frozen, the furnace off, and most of the firewood for the great hearth was used up. An oil lamp provided the illumination. The windowsills were deep with snow and buttressed with bath towels. The house was full of melting cockers and Irish setters. And the phone did not ring, ever. This might have made for a quiet time in which to think, except for having to leap up every half hour and fling logs on the fire. Of all the thirty-six books I have written, this is certainly the most complicated from one standpoint. I ran out of paper and had to write on the back of already used sheets.” Nevertheless, for all the complexity of its origins, The Stillmeadow Road is yet another immersion into the sweet sanity and contemplative values that mark all of Taber’s books.

In addition to these gems, I’ve listed a couple of books by D.E. Stevenson and Miss Read–two other authors who reliably penned stories that soothe the soul and venerate the “simpler pleasures.”

The beloved English author, Miss Read, received a marked revival of popularity after Jan Karon confessed her a favorite and an inspiration. I love Miss Read’s books, not only because they are light and touching—and yet have a penetrating insight into human nature and manners that’s almost Austen-ish in it’s flavor—but because they were much-loved by my Anglophile grandmother. Most of her books are centered in the fictional Cotswold villages of Fairacre and Thrush Green, and tell the day-to-day stories of people who seem like real-life friends and acquaintances. Like Jan Karon, Miss Read wrote of the life she knew first-hand, and let the rest of the world see how charming it was without faltering into clichés.

In Miss Read’s Village Affairs, (SOLD) Fairacre’s schoolmistress has to face the challenges of running her school under theIMG_2451 terrible rumor that it is going to be closed…

And, if you’re not already acquainted, D.E. Stevenson is a treasure. My book club calls her “Elizabeth-Goudge-Lite”, and she’s who we turn to at least once a year between weighty tomes like George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell. She was a Scottish writer of the last century and related to the great Robert Louis. And her books are simply charming. She writes of houses that remember their past and women who understand the art of being womanly. In D.E. Stevenson, you will find well-laid tea tables and rambles over the Scottish hillsides, not to mention engaging plots which are usually fashioned upon a frame of revered domesticity. And another joy of Stevenson is that once she takes the time to create a character, she doesn’t seem to want to put them to rest at the end of a book, or even a series. She wrote over forty novels, and the people you love in one book have a way of cropping up again in another character’s story, with a delightful sense of friendly recognition.

Originally published in 1943, Celia’s House is the tale of a young woman who surprisingly inherits her family manor and endeavors to make it her own in the stern face of tradition and under the somber cloud of war. And Listening Valley, published as a “companion” to Celia’s House, follows the fortunes, heartaches and wartime romance of Antonia Melville.

(You can view these books in the shop sorting by Author or by Title.)

Before I go, permit me to indulge in a humorous little domestic vignette of my own.  It’s probably no surprise, but all of this reading and writing about “hearth and home” has kindled a fire of domestic energy in my heart–so much so that I’m giving everything a closer look as the patterns of light in my rooms begin to shift with the season. If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll doubtless already be apprised of my latest homemaking misadventure–but, in a nutshell, I happened to glance at my bathroom curtains last week and think, “My goodness, they sure look dingy! I think I’ll give them a thorough soaking, and throw in some bluing for good measure.” On my way to the washing machine with arms full of muslin, I noticed that the antique lace valances over the kitchen sink were rather limp and dusty, so in they went, as well. I felt very accomplished and productive as I went about the rest of my housework–a mood that persisted until a few hours later when I lifted all that muslin and lace out of the wash to find my curtains reduced to an armful of shreds.  It was a low point, to be sure, but Amazon came to the rescue, and by Saturday morning, my kitchen windows wore a pair of inexpensive lace valances I can live with (until I have time to make or find something better), and my bathroom windows were dressed in cascades of ruffled white flounces I adore. The effect was so bright and pleasing that I couldn’t help but notice how badly the bathroom needed painting. To be sure, with a whole wall of multi-paned, wavy-glass windows, painting my bathroom is not an enterprise to be entered into lightly (it’s taken me seventeen years to get over painting it the first time), but what is a three-day weekend for, if not impossible feats of home improvement?


The project was well-underway before Philip even suspected my intentions, but when he came into the bathroom and found the whole place in disarray and me already highly-adorned with splotches of “Glass of Milk,” he merely shook his head and laughed. I don’t think he knew whether to praise my industry, or gently chide me for taking on too much. But, whatever his thoughts, he nobly leant a hand at scraping glass and unscrewing objects from the walls–most notably an unreasonably heavy cabinet in which I keep all my perfume bottles and essential oils (and which, incidentally, my sister gave me over a decade ago with good riddance seeing as she’d given up trying to keep the thing mounted to her wall).

In retrospect, I probably could have chosen a better time to step out of the room to chat with visitors in the hall, but an ear-splitting crash sent me tearing back (while my visitors quietly excused themselves and took their leave), where I found Philip, standing on the commode with the cabinet pressed desperately against the wall, and a ruin of perfume bottles and oils littering the floor around him.

“I told you we should have emptied this thing before trying to move it,” he said.

The whole scene was so ridiculous I couldn’t stop laughing as I mopped up the hideous mess, some of which had fallen into the litter box, creating its own…situation. Broken glass and fragrant oils mingled with large chunks of porcelain–it took me a moment to realize they were chunks of the commode itself. By the time I had made it safe for the barefooted Philip to step off of the commode-turned-footstool, it was evident that we had a serious problem. I don’t know my commode anatomy, but suffice it to say that something in that cabinet struck the back of the bowl with enough force to knock off a whole corner. It was evidently an important corner, for when Philip gave the handle a tentative flush, a flood of water poured out of the tank and onto the floor in a swirling river of perfume bottle caps and cat litter.

As of this morning, I have a fresh-faced bathroom, delicately tinted in a perfect warm-but-not-muddy grey. And as of tonight, I’ll have a brand-new commode. Way more effort (especially for my poor Philip), and considerably more money than we wanted to spend right now, but the bathroom’s looking awfully pretty. Which makes me think that the paint in the bedroom could use some freshening up, and we really should have a new rug in front of the fireplace…

And all I wanted to do was wash the curtains...

And all I wanted to do was wash the curtains…

Proper Introductions: Gladys Taber

Monday, August 29th, 2016

gtI’m not quite ready to say goodbye to summer—although there are those who are enduring this Georgia heat along with me who’d think I’m absolutely crazy to say that! But it’s been a light-hearted (if somewhat madcap!) season of visits to and from dear ones across the country, of kindred spirits returning home from across the world, and jaunts to “my” island with yet other beloved friends. A wealth and whirl of suitcases and road trips and birthday parties and champagne toasts and fat mystery novels and porch suppers and sailing adventures—and it’s all been so healing I’m a little loathe to turn my Susan Branch kitchen calendar to September, and to see the days getting shorter and the black walnuts starting to litter the backyard with a dusting of golden leaf-fall.

And yet, for all that, something elemental plucks at my sleeve this time of year. There’s a new languor to the crickets’ concertos, and the air is sweet with white-blossomed virgin’s bower (which seems to tumble over anything that stands still around here), and my heart is pierced like the longing of a half-remembered song. Suddenly I find myself thinking rather wistfully of open fires and Bordeaux-laced stews, starting to daydream about who can come and when for Christmas, and if we ought to shake up the Thanksgiving menu. I notice that the muslin drapes could stand to be freshly washed, starched and ironed, and I start walking around the house with a trusty can of Scott’s Liquid Gold in hand.

And then I realize one afternoon that the sunset has been creeping steadily to the south along the rim of the western pasture, and I remember that God is so terribly kind to give us such a yearly succession of familiarity and change.

This time of year my heart tends to gravitate towards the “hearth and home” authors, whose stories and cookbooks and memoirs suit my domestic fancies and feed my vision to create a haven in the midst of a topsy-turvy world. I want books that will at once undergird and inspire my ideals, written by women who feel more like friends than distant literary goddesses. In the midst of uncertain times, I want to read about the sanity of a well-tended kitchen garden, the holy companionship of faithful dogs, the sacred insights of a solitary beach stroll. I want to know that I’m not alone in believing that the earth is full of commonplace miracles, and that something as simple as a well-cooked meal or a fresh loaf of bread can bear a meaning so great it reaches the most hidden corners of the human soul. I want to be reminded of goodness in the face of chaos; beauty that outshines the jagged glare of commercialism and haste; truth that endures in the most unsettling of times.

Few authors have achieved this, in my mind, as consistently as Gladys Taber. I was first introduced to her by my dear saint-among-booksellers, Katherine Downs, who could scarcely keep Gladys’ books on her shelves. Years later, I inherited a few cherished volumes that had belonged to my grandmother. And every time I’ve seen a quotation of hers rendered by the incomparable Susan Branch, my heart’s given a little flutter of kindred-spiritship. Of course Susan knows Gladys…      

If you’re unfamiliar with Gladys Taber, she was the author of nearly sixty books, spanning over five decades of tempestuous American history. From 1937, her “Diary of Domesticity” column in the Ladies’ Home Journal was a perennial favorite, and during the 1960s she penned “Butternut Wisdom” for the Family Circle. But, best of all, she authored the Stillmeadow books, which were her friendly account of life and seasons at her beloved 1690 farmhouse in Connecticut, and later, the stories of Still Cove, her shingled cottage on Cape Cod.

gt2Gladys’s books read like journals; her voice is that of a wise and friendly optimist, honest enough to admit the brokenness of the world, but brave enough to celebrate the victorious beauty that prevails. She must have had an enormous heart, to carry such opposing realities within it, but she never gave in and let the chaos of the times have the final word. She kept writing about winter moons and pet skunks and the unfailing comfort of “pleasantly worn furniture,” celebrating the ordinary miracles that each day had to offer, staunchly resisting darkness with loveliness and cynicism with faith and humor.

I think that Gladys’ books are good medicine in an age that seems to have forgotten the eternal value of a place on earth and its power to nourish the souls that inhabit it. Her commitment to her home never fails to remind me that there’s a vital essence to the most mundane (and often exhausting) details of keeping a home. I love her for that.

And it’s for all these reasons I’m absolutely delighted to be able to offer several of Gladys’ books in the bookshop!

Stillmeadow Seasons (SOLD) is a monthly account of life in Connecticut, endearingly illustrated by Edward Shenton. After 15 years of restoring and loving her early Colonial farmhouse, Gladys reflects on the habits of her place, her year, and the loved ones who share it with her:

Now, as I look back, I often think of all the people who lived and loved, were happy or sad, those who were born and those who died in this house. For there is a continuity of living if your house has sheltered its own down the long sweep of years.

In our turn, we have cherished it, warmed it, and it has offered us days rich with contentment. It has given us back-breaking hours of work and the satisfaction of tangible results from that work. It has given us fire on the hearth on long evenings, spring sunlight through the windows, cool moonlight on the doorsills in autumn.

This is a small house, but wide enough for fifteen cockers, two cats, an Irish setter, children growing up, friends who drop in overnight and stay for three weeks… 

Country Chronicle is the reflective 1974 seasonal celebration of the comforts and small adventures of life at Stillmeadow:

As I look back over the early days at the farm, I sometimes wonder why we were never discouraged; addicts of country living can easily understand. Once you put down roots in your own place, you have a special awareness of how blessed you are. The feeling is compounded of many things, such as walking on dewy grass instead of pavements and watching a harvest moon rise over your very own swamp and bringing in your own fresh asparagus from the bed down by the pond. And hearing the stillness of an early morning. And breathing snow-pure air on a January day. And putting a log of wood from the fallen apple tree in the old orchard on the open fire…

The Best of Stillmeadow (SOLD), edited and introduced by Gladys’ daughter, Constance, is a glorious (and quite valuable!) anthology lovingly gathered from seven of Taber’s earlier books: Harvest at Stillmeadow, The Book of Stillmeadow, Stillmeadow Seasons, Stillmeadow Daybook, Stillmeadow Sampler, The Stillmeadow Road, and Stillmeadow Calendar.  

In Constance’s introduction, she writes of how the Stillmeadow books came into being, growing out of her mother’s diaries and “bulging assortment of recipes and garden lists and reminders about dog shows.”

That first book, she writes, has been followed by many others, recording the changes that have taken place over the years. There was the time when most of the apple trees were flattened by a hurricane. Then one winter the old barn burned down. Puppies came and went and so did people. Of course, someone who had read only the latest book would not know about all of this. In time it became clear that a collection of excepts from the early books (now very hard to find) was needed…

My Own Cape Cod (SOLD) is the story of her cottage Still Cove, which, as Gladys wrote, “is exactly my idea of heaven.” Peppered with poetry and photographs and Thoreau-like meditations, it is the tale of a weathered cottage and the Cape community that made it home.

What is Cape Cod? Taber muses. It is an amethyst glow at the horizon over Mill Pond…It is the Full Flower Moon in May walking in gold on quiet water…Honey locusts and honeysuckle weighing the air with sweetness and sea lavender signing the beaches with delicate purple…

Still Cove Journal is a sequel to My Own Cape Cod, written ten years later, and faithfully edited for publication by Gladys’ daughter, Constance. Gladys herself died just before the completion of this book, which makes it extra-special, being the last contribution to grace the world with her own particular brand of goodness and optimism. It is a poignant and hopeful tribute to all that matters most in life.

Of the days after her mother’s death, Constance writes,

…I had to do something. My mother’s solution would have been to reach for a book. It occurred to me suddenly that I could go to one of her own books. In the past, her words had comforted so many people during times of sorrow and pain. Surely there would be a message for us now…

Especially Father gives us the story of Gladys’ idyllic early twentieth century upbringing, and the unforgettable father who made life so colorful.

I knew suddenly that I didn’t want the family to be forgotten. Especially Father.

No, nor the time lost, either. For history records the large events or the general condition of society, but only an individual can put down the way of life in a small town, the excitement of an old-fashioned summer colony, the days when nice girls came in at half-past ten.

Radio had not invaded the house, no planes drummed in the sky, and the sound of war was not in any ears. The iceman still drove up in the damp cool wagon, and the gas burner had only lately given way to the chandelier…

Spring Harvest (SOLD) is one of Gladys Taber’s many charming novels. This one, set in 1914 at Commencement time in a little Wisconsin co-ed college, sweeps students, faculty and townspeople into an interlacing little drama of small town life in a less-complicated era.

I welcome you to have a look at these beloved books. And if you’re already a Gladys Taber fan, I would absolutely  love to hear your favorites in the comment section!

In closing, I was enchanted but not entirely surprised to learn that Susan Branch (whom I adore) has a page dedicated to Gladys Taber on her website. It’s very touching for me to consider that a woman whose writings I’ve so admired has left such an legacy in the life of another woman whose work has meant so much to me. Pop on over to Susan’s page and enjoy her gorgeous tribute. (There’s even a beautiful photograph of Stillmeadow!)

Happy reading, friends!




Nulla dies sine linea*

Sunday, June 12th, 2016

CoB2I’ve shared it in this space before, but one of my very favorite Elizabeth Goudge passages comes from the 1936 A City of Bells. The dreamy child Henrietta has just returned from an exciting stint in Edwardian London, and, upon her homecoming, experiences a sort-of regathering of herself and her dreams:

Henrietta, at heart a contemplative person, enjoyed alarums and excursions for a short while only. For her a background of quiet was essential to happiness. It had been fun to stay with Felicity, to be petted and spoiled by all her friends…to have lovely things to eat and to go to the zoo whenever she liked, but it had completely upset her equilibrium and she felt as though she had been turned upside down so that everything that was worthwhile in her mind fell out. She, like everyone else, had to find out by experience in what mode of life she could best adjust herself to the twin facts of her own personality and the moment of time in which destiny had planted it, and she was lucky perhaps that she found out so early…

…she found herself listening only to the lovely silence and it seemed to her that in it she came right way up again and her dreams, that had deserted her in London, came flocking back, so that with joy she flung open the doors of her mind and welcomed them in. Never again, she vowed, would she live a noisy life that killed her dreams. They were her reason for living, the only thing that she had to give to the world, and she must live in the way that suited them best.

Elizabeth Goudge, A City of Bells

Henrietta at the station

Henrietta at the station

With the coming of 2016, a torrent of dammed-up blessing seemed to burst its bounds for very joy and come crashing down upon our heads. We’ve laughingly called it a “pile-on of goodness,” but, in the light of the sorrow we’ve known and the grief we’re walking through now, it’s a situation we’re only too thankful to contend with. I feel like I lost something of myself back in the long, dark wood of Daddy’s illness, and in that terrible plunge into the black ocean of bereavement. Of course I did—a certain innocence, a naivety of death’s finality. And, of course, I’ve gained things in those places I could not have otherwise. Things that will mark me for life, and things that are very, very precious to me. I do not grudge the mercies I’ve been shown.

But I also cannot let myself grudge—or worse, distrust—some of the goodness that’s carrying us along these days. As George MacDonald says, “Good is always coming.” But sometimes, when it shows up, it makes us a little afraid. And, in this case, it’s made me a little tired. Like Henrietta, I’ve needed to readjust myself a bit to the “twin facts” of my (very introverted, very idealistic!) personality and the realities of the period of history in which God has seen fit to place it. And, like my young book friend, I’m feeling the need to recalibrate after a season of sustained “alarums and excursions.”

I’m deeply thankful for abundance of this place, and for the perspective grief has granted. When Philip and I sat down the other night to recount the first half of this year—the time we’ve been able to spend with family and friends, the good news we’ve heard, the unlooked-for and long hoped-for gifts that have fallen into our laps—we were, quite frankly, amazed. What’s more, everything—every day—seems so starkly precious now. Not to suggest that we’re free of care in the least. There are questions and shadows and situations in this life that burden our hearts very much—unbearably so, at times. But it’s good to be brought up short by the reminder that all news isn’t bad; that God isn’t threatened by our hearts’ native longings. That, as Catherine Marshall put it, “dreams carried around in one’s heart for years … have a way of suddenly materializing.”

The winter and spring were a whirl of travel and study. After signing up for a Middle English Literature course at Oxford for the very ignoble reason that the Advanced Creative Writing course I wanted to take was full, I managed to fall head-over-heels in love with medieval culture and texts. Just about every assumption I had about the period was challenged in the most wonderful way, and it was heart-kindlingly delightful to stumble into some of my dearest literary heroes and mentors among all those illumined manuscripts and epic poems—Lewis, Tolkien, Charles Williams, T.S. Eliot, Dorothy Sayers—and to realize as never before just how profoundly their works were influenced by their intimacy with Middle English texts. Hilary term was, in many ways, a budding literary romance for me, and I have not the least doubt that both my studies and my writing will be marked by it henceforth.

In the midst of all this, we gave my bookshop a total overhaul, traveled to Tennessee for the From Death Unto Life conference in March, had our house painted, and heard Joan Baez in concert, among other things. What’s more, back in February, we sailed our new (to us!) sailboat from Florida (where we bought her) up to Georgia (where she now resides most happily). More about this later, I promise, but this maiden voyage was a huge deal for us, inaugurating a new and totally unprecedented season in our lives. She’s an old girl, and she needs lots of love; but she’s beautiful—stouthearted and seaworthy, and we adore her, stem to stern. (I can’t announce her name yet, as we haven’t had a proper re-christening ceremony, but, trust me, it’s perfect.)

The Maiden Voyage

The Maiden Voyage

In April we were able to spend a few weeks at the coast in the Airstream, working on our boat at the nearby marina. And three days after we got home I flew out for two weeks in Europe. I’ve never taken such a big trip without Philip before (and we’ve never been apart for so long!), but the opportunity to travel to Italy with one of my oldest and dearest friends was pure gift and goodness. I hadn’t laid eyes on her in four years—and what a four years they’ve been! But when I looked up and saw her in the Paris airport it was as if we’d parted only the day before.

Lovely Varenna

Lovely Varenna

Throughout our time in Italy we did what we always do: we laughed until we cried, and we talked until sympathetic tears stood in our eyes. And then we laughed again, because, in spite of all its hardness and brokenness, it really is a lovely old world yet. (We also ate lots of gelato, and bought floppy straw hats, and wandered in silence among ancient terraced gardens clinging to the shores above Lake Como. And whenever we got in the car to go anywhere, we clutched hands and prayed we wouldn’t be killed because, hello, we were in Italy, and I was driving! ;))

Giardindi Botanici, Villa Cipressi

Giardindi Botanici, Villa Cipressi

“We will look back on this time for the rest of our lives,” she said, as we sat out on our little terrace overlooking a cobbled lane with the shimmering lake beyond, and swallows and bell-song filling the air above our heads.

She was right; one month out, and it already has the tender distance of a dream.

The cobbled lanes of Bellagio

The cobbled lanes of Bellagio

From Milan I flew on to England for a week in Oxford. After the glorious indolence of Italy, I had to hustle to keep pace with a brimming schedule of meetings and lectures and libraries. But it was glorious in its own right. I’ve often called Oxford the city of my heart, which is entirely true. It holds a sacred, scarcely articulable magic for me, haunted as it is by the memory of men and women who have influenced me most profoundly in my faith—the shining ones whose words have called forth latent longings in my heart and whose “lively lives in Christ” have assured me of things I had always hoped were true. I stumble into my heroes around every corner in Oxford, which is almost unbearably poignant at times. On my last full day, I skipped a very appealing lecture on “Music in Shakespeare” to wander along the sun-dappled shades of Addison’s Walk at Magdalen College, one of C.S. Lewis’ favorite footpaths. I love imagining Lewis there, thinking his long thoughts as he paced the very ground beneath my feet, sorting imponderables into disarmingly simple prose.

The Water Meadow, Magdalen College, Oxford

The Water Meadow, Magdalen College, Oxford

No one has expressed how I feel about sharing spaces with my great ones like dear old G.M. Hopkins:

Yet ah! this air I gather and I release
He lived on; these weeds and waters, these walls are what
He haunted who of all men most sways my spirits to peace.  

(Endearingly enough, I felt the very same way standing in the dim aisle of the Oxford Oratory, where Hopkins was once curate. Of all poets, he most sways my heart to joy.)

The Oxford Oratory Catholic Church of St. Aloysius

The Oxford Oratory Catholic Church of St. Aloysius

A muddy little byway leading off of the main walk led me to a stone bench thoughtfully placed before the gate to the Water Meadow, and there I sat for a solid hour contemplating the view of flower-sprinkled mead and golden spires beyond. I thought about the adventures behind me, the confidence that had grown with getting myself from one European country to another, the staggering opportunities that little University Card had afforded me in Oxford. And I thought about what I was taking back home with me: presents for Philip, of course; silk scarves for our mothers; a pair of geeky little “9 ¾” earrings for myself. But so much more than that—I was carrying a new clarity on some very important issues, a refined sense of calling, a clutch of answers to specific prayers. And I had an injunction, a clear and loving commandment that had been whispering itself to my heart through all the challenges and delights and contemplative moments of my travels:

Stay Uncomfortable.

In other words, I must keep allowing myself to be thrown into situations and opportunities in which I am completely over my head. I must keep letting my limits be pushed, embracing the utter disquietude that often (usually, always) accompanies a genuine heart’s desire. I mustn’t allow fear or self-consciousness or inexperience to tether me to the dock when God is longing to breathe wind into my sails. No matter how old I get, I must never allow complacency to masquerade as contentment. Contentment is a lovely thing—a holy thing, in its proper expression. But it must never become an excuse for disobedience.

Broad Street, Oxford

Broad Street, Oxford

I had an unmistakable confirmation of my calling while I was in England. A host of deeply meaningful moments which I never could have engineered added up to a freshened sense of God’s personal and very particular love. And they pointed indisputably in the direction of my Obedience. I’m still making space in my heart (and life) to articulate this great verity, but I know that it’s time reclaim some of the ground that sorrow and weariness have taken; time to evict self-consciousness (yet again) and laugh fear in its ugly face.

In other words, it’s time to get back to my desk.

I’ve been looking forward to the summer as a bit of a breather after the wild ride of the winter and spring. But I’ve also been yearning towards something else, leaning like a plant to the sun. I want a rest, but I want a challenge, too. I love all the excitement of passports and suitcases and opera tickets and term papers (yes, I’m a total nerd), but I’m ready to recalibrate a bit, trim my sails, if you will. In the spirit of a lighthearted contest I undertook several years ago, I’ve decided to commit to a little personal dare over the next several months: to sit at my desk and to keep words flowing for exactly one hour, every day, six days a week. I realize that this doesn’t sound like much, but it’s more than the absolute nothing I’ve been writing lately (and academic writing doesn’t count—not that it can be less creative than other forms of wordsmithery, but it comes so hard for me it’s not the playful romp I both need and want right now). And I know from experience that a short daily commitment to anything can be surprisingly productive. An hour of drivel can open out into a sudden vista of insight; a habit makes space for magic to happen. As the incomparable Leif Enger told us at Hutchmoot a few years ago, “Persistence is the landing strip of the Muse.”

I don’t have a lot of high-falutin’ goals (okay, maybe I do, but I’m trying not to weight this sweet new enthusiasm with a burden of outcomes); I’m just remembering how to write for fun again. And the only way to do that, of course, is to write for Love.

The City of My Heart

The City of My Heart

Bless you if you’ve borne with me through this wandering post. Even as I’m writing it, my heart warms with wonder and gratitude that there are people out there who actually care enough to show up here and read my ramblings; hearts in which my words find safe haven. I feel like I need to close every post with a very misty-eyed “thank you.”

Under the Obedience,



The folks who put on the From Death Unto Life conference (billed as an artistic preparation for Holy Week), have graciously made the audio available for free! If you’re interested, you can find a link to the session I shared with my beloved friend, Jennifer Trafton. It’s called “Creativity as a Spiritual Discipline.”

Also, I’m writing this post from our sailboat as the sun is dipping low over the marshes, flooding our cabin with amber light. I’m just starting to think about supper, and Philip just turned on a fantastic Dinah Washington record. This song came on, and it absolutely warmed the cockles of my dreamer’s heart. And it made me think about this post by my my dear Sarah Clarkson that pretty much changed my life (resulting in the above-mentioned session.)

St. Mary Magdalen Church, Woodstock

St. Mary Magdalen Church, Woodstock

*”Not a day without a line,”–the motto of the Art Students’ League in New York.

Surprised by Joy

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016

surprised by joy

I had the privilege of presenting last weekend at the From Death Unto Life conference in Franklin, Tennessee, and one of my sessions was a short plenary on William Wordsworth’s immortal sonnet, “Surprised by Joy” (the poem from which C.S. Lewis took the title of his stupendously wonderful spiritual autobiography). I thought I’d share some of my thoughts here as we navigate the most important week of the Christian year. Bereavement lends such perspective to the great realities of our Lord’s death and resurrection–there’s just nothing like losing someone we love to seal the brand on our hearts of what “death unto life” really means.


Surprised by Joy

by William Wordsworth

Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom
But Thee, long buried in the silent Tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind—
But how could I forget thee?—Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss!—That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

I used to think this poem was about joy. After my father died last summer, I thought it was about grief. Now I know, of course–but as never before–it’s about both. At the exact same time.

This lovely and heartbreaking sonnet exemplifies the concept of what the Orthodox Church has long referred to as Bright Sadness, that cohabitation of grief and joy that characterizes the keenest moments of our lives. Those moments when the veil grows thin and we know just how near the unseen verities really are. It’s the tension that Paul described in II Corinthians as “sorrowful, but always rejoicing”.

When I stepped into the room after my father was gone, I suddenly knew, in a way I could never explain, that everything I believed about life and death and eternity and redemption was absolutely true. It was so devastating and so sublime I could hardly bear it.

Death is arguably the most clarifying force in the world. But when you lose someone you love, there’s this frantic urgency to keep them alive by bringing them into everything you do. By constantly looking at the world through their eyes; imagining how they would react to things; interpreting events the way they would have.

The single most oft-repeated phrase that has come out of my mouth since my dad died last summer is, Daddy would have LOVED this.

Whether the oyster pie at our Christmas feast,
Or the early spring announcement of the sandhill cranes overhead,
Or offshore sailing in our new boat,
Or the Joan Baez concert we went to last week—

He’s here, his memory so integrated with my experience that it’s almost easy to pretend he’s not really gone. (It’s a game we all like to play, I think.)

But a time will come when I forget to remember what he’d think, or say, or do.

Not a permanent forgetting, of course. But a time when my grief grows gentle enough to lie still a while. When sorrow steps outside the frame lines of the camera lens, instead of standing front and center, an entity around which, under which, through which I see everything else. I dread that—my heart protests it. But the universality of this poem asserts that it will happen.

Bereavement is so terrifying because it brings the loved one nearer than ever while flaunting their unattainable absence. The early shock of grief protects us from the full blow of death’s finality, and this is a mercy. But a necessary distancing must occur, a withdrawal that feels almost worse than the original loss.

The Second Death, as Sheldon Vanauken called it.

Wordsworth wrote this poem two years after the death of his 4 year-old daughter, Catherine, a blow that was as sudden as it was cruel. The heartbreak here isn’t just that he’s forgotten she’s dead—he’s forgotten to remember she’s dead. He hasn’t kept up his end of the bargain—and we all like to bargain with death, don’t we? If we can just keep dancing in the tip of this precipice we won’t fall over the edge. (Some people describe this stage of grief as feeling like the loved one has died all over again. I’m not looking forward to that.)

It might seem that this poem ends on a hopeless note, but I don’t think so at all. Honest, but not hopeless. It’s a heavenly face the poet contemplates–not in a disembodied sense, or as an overly sentimental assessment of the deceased’s virtues and qualities. Like Rosetti’s Blessed Damozel “leaning out over the gold bar of heaven,” it’s Catherine’s face he sees in his mind’s eye. Catherine as she actually was in life; Catherine as he will see her again.

But he acknowledges the distance, the unbridgeable gap between himself and his little girl. Like the antimony of bright sadness, the unseen world is at once astonishingly present and impossibly far away.

I love the fact that Wordsworth does not resort to platitudes in this poem. “Surprised by Joy” is pure lyric poetry, a raw outburst of the deepest feelings of the heart. He doesn’t offer us a cleaned up version of his experience, with a happy Sunday school moral tacked on the end, but the deeply Christian reality of joy and sorrow intermingled, inseparable. Undeniable.

And it ends on Good Friday—the silent tomb, the grievous loss.

But we’ve already seen intimations of resurrection in that impatient surging of life, in the surprise of that sudden, unlooked-for joy, where joy ought not to be—right in the midst of grief.

Joy is the poet’s token in pledge—and it’s ours, as well.

It’s a promissory note of the reunion waiting on the other side of separation.

It’s the first golden shaft of Easter morning…


March 14

Monday, March 14th, 2016


I remember the way you talked about your daddy,
How your eyes would dim when you said he was only 81.
“He’d have lived to 100, if he hadn’t smoked.”

I understand, now.
I know the waking panic of 3 AM;
The nauseating sense that a great mistake has been made—
A wrong that must be remediated,
An overturning that must be righted.

I know what it means to scrabble and claw in the dark
After the elusive solution,
That golden key which will turn this tragedy
Back into the comedy it’s meant to be.

It doesn’t help to tell myself it’s not my fault,
That no penance of mine will ever bring you back,
No gauntlet win your freedom from this foe.

(How long the years stretch forth when stained by loss!)

You didn’t make it, either—
Your daddy was gone before you got there,
Though you drove through the night.

(But I understand why you never went back to New Orleans.)

I crossed a continent, mad as Mercury to be at your side.
For what—to make you stay? To hold you back
In that broken body? Imprisoned for one more second
In the fear and pain of a shattered mind?


(And, yet, I can’t help feeling there must be
Something I should have done.)

It’s never safe to lose a daddy like yours

Or mine.

You would have been 68 today.
(Are you older or younger now?)
Perhaps, in years to come, this will again be a day of laughter,
And remembering. Today
All I can think is, “Too young.”

I never can stomach the shrinking delicacy of “passed away.”
The daintiness that glances aside from Death’s firm gaze
And calls it someone’s “time.”

But I know you shouldn’t be dead.

You should be ripping through the grand tall tale of your life,
Braver than a boar hog,
Stronger than a new rope,
Wild as a buck,
Light-hearted as a summer sky.

You should be flinging out the great largesse of your laugh,
Making all within earshot as rich as kings.

You should be telling me to do what I’m made for,
Telling me not to be afraid of life.
(You never did have to tell me that—
When you were near, I wasn’t scared of anything.)

But if Death’s dark grammar defies imprecision,
Mercy all the more demands exactitude:
I cannot speak of you in lies of “was” and “were.”

And while I pine for your smile,
The sound of your voice,
The calloused knots of your hands,

I cannot deny that you are.

The oldest corner of my soul knows just how near,
The youngest learns that while I live,
Something of you lives on, as well.

What a charge, your living, and dying, and living again!
Do you have the least idea what wealth you’ve wrapped me in?
(I think you do.)

The last thing you ever said was, “I love you.”


*photo credit: Frank Gibson

Ladies’ Choice

Monday, February 29th, 2016

On with the dance! Let joy be unconfined; no sleep till morn when Youth and Pleasure meet!" ~Byron

On with the dance! Let joy be unconfined; no sleep till morn when Youth and Pleasure meet!” ~Byron

Looking back, I’ve always called it the Annus Mirabilis: my own little wonderful year. Its wonders consisted not in calamity (thank goodness!), nor were they even of a particularly earth-shattering nature. But it was a (mostly) happy year for me, dawning in the sudden strong goodness of abundant friendship, and closing with an appropriate dose of healthy, if painful, experience. I stepped into 1996 unseasoned and hopelessly idealistic—and I stepped out of it slightly less naïve, but with more cause for ideals than ever. In a way, that sweet year shaped my ideals, and in another way it confirmed them.

I was twenty-one years old: a ballet teacher, a piano teacher, and working at the antiquarian bookstore where I received my apprenticeship (and not just in books!) from one of the finest women I will ever know. More to the point, I was full-time maid-of-honor to my best friend as she prepared and planned for her June wedding to the worthy Australian who’d won her heart. I little imagined what our coming separation would mean in those endlessly happy days of poring over dress sketches and comparing weaves of linen for the bridesmaids’ gowns and discussing the various virtues of punch recipes with as much seriousness as if the world depended upon our choice. Everything was touched with magic and romance and significance in that time of deeply distilled aliveness; there were no ordinary things or unremarkable days.

I remember sitting cross-legged on Rachel’s bedroom floor, talking until the country night grew grey outside the windows and the whippoorwills gave way to the whistles and coos of bobwhite quail. I remember April picnics wherein we read Browning aloud (E.B., of course) and starred each other’s hair with violets. I remember going to see Sense and Sensibility together in the theatre, and bursting into such a torrent of uncontrollable tears at the end that a stranger several seats over passed me her packet of tissues. (For one who doesn’t cry in public, I did an awful lot of it in those days, and usually because I was happy.)

I remember the way my friend looked at me that last night, the night before she left everything she’d ever known to go and live in Australia with her new husband. The way she clenched my hands and made me promise I’d never marry anyone I couldn’t do the same thing for.

Of course I won’t. (I didn’t, for the record. I would live on the moon with Philip, or at the bottom of a well, or in the heart of the Amazonian wilds (please with a pair of stout boots, though). But I didn’t know him yet, or imagine such a fit for me existed in this world, so it was very much a promise of faith.)

My happy preoccupation with my friend and her wedding existed within the milieu of a wider circle of friendship which had materialized so suddenly and untraceably that even in the midst of our most frenzied activity and merriment, I never lost my awe of it. I still haven’t. It was nothing less than a gift of God, for which I remain most dazedly thankful. Even at this distance—or, perhaps, especially so—the wonder of such warm, youthful companionship still stings my heart awake with joy. I thought I knew how blessed I was then; looking at the world today, with all of its impediments to true connection, I realize I barely dreamed what a gift lay within my hands.

We called ourselves the Crowd, and later the Clan, as a general Celtic mania overspread our ranks. (We even appointed a chieftain, descended from none other than William Wallace himself.) There was always something going on—or, at least, a small clutch of us somewhere plotting something to go on. And no matter what frolics and festivities the weekends held, Thursday night found us unquestioningly in the basement of an old Presbyterian church off the Square of my hometown practicing the jigs and reels and intricate figures of Scottish Country Dancing. We’d discovered it the autumn before at the Highland Games, and consequently descended on the local branch class with more energy than art, and an increasing entourage of younger brothers and sisters. But the good ladies and gentlemen of the Royal Scottish Country Dancing Society welcomed us with open arms, restructuring their entire system to accommodate the population explosion we’d generated within their orderly class. There were socials every month, and balls at Christmas and in May, and we girls were over the moon with the likeness of the thing to the dancing we’d seen in our beloved Jane Austen “bonnet dramas.” (For the uninitiated, Scottish Country Dancing is a close cousin to the English contradancing one sees in all those Regency-era films, with the couples facing one another in long lines, or sets, running the length of the room.) We ragged our hair, and made Empire-waisted gowns, and basically forgot that we were living in the 20th century. Incidentally, if the guys weren’t quite so wildly enthusiastic about the whole Austen connection, I will say that they threw themselves into the spirit of Scottish Dancing with admirable zeal, and on the whole were Thoroughly Good Sports.

At the beginning of 1996, we had several months of classes and a genuine Christmas ball under our belts. Never ones to deny our hearts of any youthful joy, we’d eventually take our dancing into the fields of historic sites, into nursing homes, into the courtyard of our favorite coffee shop, and—get this—to the legendary Tattoo at the Stone Mountain Highland Games, where we danced before a full arena to the wild, sweet accompaniment of the Atlanta Pipe and Drum Corps! But that’s a whole ‘nother story…

(We also danced at each other’s weddings, naturally enough, no fewer than a dozen of which came out of that delightful jumble of mixed company.)

I find it appropriate that my annus mirabilis was a Leap Year, in itself something of a wonder. And there was only one appropriate response to such a happy fact: a party! Drawing from Victorian traditions of feminine forwardness connected with the day (it was actually considered permissible for a woman to propose to a man on Leap Day!), my sister and I plotted an elaborate scheme of dances and tongue-in-cheek games to celebrate the night with our friends. The whole thing was so brilliant we could scarcely believe we’d come up with it—we only hoped our mother could be equally convinced of our inspiration.

I remember distinctly pitching the idea to her, waving my arms about our open-plan dining room and living room in indication of what could be done with the furniture.

“We can slide the table up against the far wall for refreshments, and we can turn the sofa against the plate glass windows, and we can put the harvest table in the den.” I dismissed it with a flick of the wrist. “And all these little side tables and chairs can go…somewhere.”

“We need lots of room for the dancing,” my sister explained.

My mother listened with a look of faint resignation—the same look I’d seen some years before when I’d explained how easily this same space could be converted into a stage, complete with a curtain (“It’ll only take a few nails…”) and seating for the audience.

“Besides,” my sister added with characteristic philosophy, “the next time Leap Year comes around, we’ll all be too old to dance.”

My long-suffering mother sighed. And, just as on that former occasion, she smiled and said “Yes” to the upheaval of her entire house in the name of one of my “ideas.” God bless her for it.

We accordingly dispatched hand-written invitations to a Leap Day party, which were received with eagerness, if not a little puzzlement. Fortunately for our plan, the day fell on a Thursday, a night already sacred to dancing in our set, and it would be easy enough to shift the weekly after-class party from the coffee shop on the Square to our house a few blocks away. Liz and I came up with a set list of dances we knew and dances that just sounded awesome, like “Frost and Snow,” and “Byron’s Strathspey,” and we made dance cards for everyone out of playing cards—the girls’ had long ribbons so they could dangle from the wrist and never be out of reach. We cut hearts from red paper with famous couples’ names on them, then we cut them in half for a fun little partner matching game. Apart from that, it was understood that, on this night, at least, the girls would do all the asking.

I was so excited I almost wished the class away so that we could get home to our party. But, at long last, it was time, and Liz and I raced back to the house just ahead of our guests to make sure that the fire was dancing and the food was on the table. We’d just lit the last candle when, with an explosion of laughter and shedding of coats, the Clan was upon us.

Twenty years later, it still makes my heart glad to look back upon that night and to remember all our young joy. My parents’ house rang with the music of our happiness as we whirled and reeled, laughing our way through the dances, yet still pulling them off with something of their intended beauty. I see couples flying “down the middle and up” of our long, ranch living room, and suddenly my eyes are blurred with tears and there’s a funny burning at the back of my throat. Such a time of sweet intensity and longing and unbounded hope! Goodness knows we all had a lot to learn, and not a one of us came through that season without being scathed in some way by life or love or the ordinary pains of growing up. But how glad I am that I got to do so much of my growing up in company of such fun-loving, noble-hearted, intelligent and altogether interesting young men and women. They gave me so much joy, and I owe them more than I can say.

Liz and I had one last surprise for our friends the night of the Leap Day party: a custom dance that she and I had written especially for the occasion. We set it to the lively ballroom track “Miss Grey” from the Sense and Sensibility soundtrack (arduously spliced in order to make it long enough for an entire set to dance), and it included, among other notable figures, the pretty little move from the film wherein the dancers face one another through a ring of their joined arms. It took some doing to coax fluidity out of the guys with such an unfamiliar step. But, as on other occasions, they were up to it, and once we’d all become comfortable with the figures of the dance, we danced it again and again. And again.

We’d named it, appropriately enough: “Ladies’ Choice.”