Proper Introductions: Summer Reading

Friday, July 15th, 2011

Frank Weston Benson,'The Reader'

There is something about the long, languid days of summer that begs for a particular flavor of reading, in my mind. I have said this before, but books have their own season for me as definitely as my clothes. I’d no more pull on my cabled wool ‘barn sweater’–so de rigueur for frosty winter mornings–in the middle of July, than I’d consider dipping into the pages of such familiar friends as Anna Karenina or Great Expectations when the temperature outside nudges above eighty degrees. And the hotter it gets, the lighter the fare that’s desired. In the dog days of summer, I eat salads and wear sundresses almost exclusively. And while I disdain ‘fluff’ in reading as in everything else, my summer book choices tend to lean decidedly on the frothier side.

Charlotte Mason warned wisely and famously against ‘twaddle’, and I consider it my duty, as writer and bookseller, never to misguide anyone along that line. But permit me to highlight a few volumes and authors which, if not particularly freighted with great moral themes and deathless prose, will at the least prove gentle companions for a slower, lazier time of year. Perfect for reading in a hammock, or tucked in a cool windowseat…

D.E. Stevenson

D.E. Stevenson is a gem. My book club calls her “Elizabeth-Goudge-Lite”, and she’s who we turn to at least once a year between weighty tomes like Eliot and Gaskell. She was a Scottish writer of the last century and a descendant of 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.

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.

Amberwell is about a manorial family in the Scottish Lowlands and how they and the community surrounding them both survive and overcome the devastations of WWII.

The English Air is a collectible volume that tells the WWII-era love story of a young German man and an English girl.

Music in the Hills is the sequel to the beloved Vittoria Cottage, but like her other sequels, stands on its own as the charming story of a young man who returns to Scotland and settles down to farming after his service in the army.

The Marriage of Katherine wraps up the story begun in Katherine Wentworth and tells of her new life as wife to a hard-nosed but tender-hearted solicitor and mother to three children.

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 or idealism. And as in D.E. Stevenson, the reader gets the chance to encounter beloved characters again and again.

In Village Affairs, Fairacre’s schoolmistress has to face the challenges of running her school under the terrible rumor that it is going to be closed.

Changes at Fairacre chronicles the encroaching effects of modern life on the village and its inhabitants, and celebrates the staunch fact that some things will never change.

The Battles at Thrush Green are over such matters of consequence as the management of the school and the plan for the neglected churchyard. Not to mention the return of an inhabitant that’s been gone for half a century…

Return to Thrush Green chronicles one family’s upheavals and another’s desire to settle down, all against the backdrop of a finely-rendered English spring.

No Holly for Miss Quinn is the story of a mysterious spinster and the interrupted Christmas that impacted the rest of her life.

In Village Centenary the one hundredth anniversary of the village school is celebrated with all due honors amid the usual turmoils and joys of Fairacre life.

Grace Livingston Hill

So, I’m curious—how many of you have heard of Grace Livingston Hill? She was another author that I first discovered on my grandmother’s shelves. I used to come home from her house on summer afternoons with my arms loaded, only to return them the next week for a fresh batch. They were my great-grandmother’s copies mostly, with the dates of her readings penciled carefully inside the front cover—many of them with second and third notations. From 1887 to 1948, Grace Livingston Hill was the author of over 100 books, most of which were written to keep the wolf from the door. Nevertheless, her stories are all different, even though each of them bears certain hallmarks that her readers came to trust and expect: every story highlights the constant, daily reality of good and evil, and every single of one them carries a message of grace. Her books are endearingly old-fashioned and romantic—chivalrously so!—and she delights with an immersion in period detail, from the cut of a dainty 1930’s frock to the setting of an elegant table on limited means. I still remember being enchanted with the account of a character whipping up a batch of fresh mayonnaise to garnish a salad for a special luncheon! And if Hill’s heroines are a bit idealized, they are absolutely lovely girls and a joy to keep company with throughout the duration of the book. Modern readers, accustomed to the requisite subtlety of our age, may smile over the overt Christian themes of Hill’s books. But I, for one, am an unabashed admirer, in great measure for the quiet delights I received at her hands as a girl and the sweetest dreams which they inspired. I really could (and perhaps will) write an entire post about Grace, but for now, I’ll reign myself in by saying that I may not have read every single one of her 100+ books, but I’ve definitely read enough to vouch for her. Grace Livingston Hill is light reading at its most decent and fine.

The 1916 story, A Voice in the Wilderness, has a young woman stranded in the Arizona desert with no one to help her but a stranger.

Bright Arrows is the sweet story of a girl fighting to preserve her inheritance from scheming relatives, only to find an inheritance that is even more valuable.

Happiness Hill sheds a gentle light on how one can be selfish without even realizing it. This is one of those “what do you really want” stories.

Spice Box is a doctor’s search for the identity of a young patient he saves in a snowstorm.

In Silver Wings 1930’s sophistication meets tragedy when a young pilot goes missing.

The Search is a WWI love story that crosses the class divide.

illustration from "The Trumpeter Swan", by Temple Bailey

In the 1920’s, Temple Bailey was one of the highest-paid writers in America. Yet another discovery among my great-grandmother’s books, I actually didn’t read any of Bailey’s books until fairly recently. But I do love her style. She has a voice that is completely unique, almost fable-like at times, and she manages to write on some very sentimental themes without sounding corny or hackneyed. Reading a Temple Bailey book is like watching a magic lantern show of the twenties and thirties—there is a certain gorgeousness that is never too much. She writes with a lighter hand than many popular novelists of her day, and manages to pull off some worthy morals without ever lapsing into preaching.

From the dust jacket of the 1928 Silver Slippers: “a dance in the moonlight, days of delight and disillusionment, and a day when Joan threw her silver slippers into the sea…”

In Little Girl Lost, a girl of 19 takes a year to make up her mind just which man she wants to marry…

The Gay Cockade is the 1921 collection of 14 of Temple Bailey’s enchanting short stories.

Well, there’s a start, at least, and a peek at four writers with whom one can while a gentle hour or two. (Or more!)

So, what are you reading this summer? I’d love to know.

Proper Introductions is a series dedicated to highlighting some of the titles that can be found on the shelves at Lanier’s Books.

Under the Omnipotence

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

I’ve made no secret of my heartfelt writerly crush on The Rabbit Room, and it is always an honor and a joy to get to chime in on the Great Conversation that’s going on over there. Most recently I’ve aired some opinions on one of the Inklings, Charles Williams, the man C.S. Lewis called his ‘dearest friend’.

He was the one running back and forth from the bar, keeping everyone supplied with ale and good cheer during the weekly meetings at the Eagle and Child (or “Bird and Baby”, to the seasoned Oxonian). He scarcely uttered a word, playful or serious, into which he did not thrust the intense vitality of his entire personality, for better or for worse. Largely self-taught, he couldn’t even boast of a degree (excepting the honorary MA Oxford eventually conferred upon him near the end of his life), though he sat at ease among some of the greatest minds of the twentieth century. In terms of elegance and concision he was a terrible novelist and a largely unremembered poet.

C.S. Lewis esteemed him among the chiefest of his friends and lauded the deep spirituality of both his writings and his life. The wary Tolkien wasn’t so sure.

If you’re interested enough to find out what I thought, you can read the rest here:

The Inscrutable Inkling

Proper Introductions, Christmas Edition

Monday, December 6th, 2010

'On Christmas Day in the Evening' by Grace Richmond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas Day in the Evening by Grace Richmond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper Introductions: Rumer Godden

Tuesday, October 5th, 2010

Rumer Godden, 1907-1998

At the gentle (and brilliant) suggestion of a reader, I have decided to act upon a notion I had back in the summer, before I even opened the Bookshop at Lanier’s Books, namely, a series of proper introductions to the authors and titles you will find on my shelves.  My  books are selected with great care and intention as it has been my ambition to create a space of trust and beauty and worth wherein my readers may peruse with abandon–without having to wade through what Charlotte Mason so endearingly termed ‘twaddle’. Granted, there is plenty of lighter reading amid my tomes, but that mainly of a nineteenth or early-twentieth century variety and, consequently, wholesome in tone and moral structure. The books in my shop are there for a reason, either by first-hand experience with the title itself or by a confiding trust in the author based on previous encounters with other works.

Basically, I am always hunting and selecting the authors I love and the books I love for the sheer joy of sharing them. Many have asked how I can bear to part with them–I must confess with a blush that many I already own. Mrs. Downs always said that a real book collector is bound to become a book seller one day or another out of sheer necessity! But even the ones which don’t reside in my personal library are a literal delight to pass on as I envision (and even hear of) the delight with which they are received.

I am hoping that these social pleasantries will aid you, not only as you cast your eyes over the titles and descriptions in my shop, but in making the acquaintance of these books and their authors in your own corners of the world.

And now, without further ado, I present Rumer Godden.

My first introduction to Rumer Godden came by way of a picture of the books on a bedside table of a respected writer. I didn’t have to know more than that to send me scurrying to the library to check out The Greengage Summer. The writing was not sparkling–it was shimmering, luminescent, by times restrained and luscious, filled with beauties that hurt and honesty that was painful at times. I’m not a big fan of ‘coming-of-age’ novels as they all seem to follow a rather predictable route with a lot of predictable and usually distasteful elements. Greengage broke that mold for me, and left me wanting more of Godden’s gorgeous prose. She reminded me a little bit of Elizabeth Goudge, with her depth of perception and insistence upon prying beneath the surface of things, not to mention her obvious love of beauty. And though this particular novel did not reveal the deep spiritual vein that I was to encounter in other works, I knew, somehow, that it was there.

Rumer Godden was born in Sussex, England in 1907, and spent her childhood in Colonial India, returning to Calcutta to open a dance school in 1925. She died in 1998 in Dumfriesshire, Scotland. Much of her prose is flavored with the customs and conflicts of the British regime in India, and, later, with the devotion of Catholicism, to which she converted in 1968. She was awarded the Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1993 and she wrote more than 60 works during her lifetime.

There are a number of Godden’s books on my shelves.

Kingfishers Catch Fire is the story of a single English mother making a determined way for herself and her children in the Eden-like Vale of Kashmir–against the best counsel of her friends and advisers.

Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy tells the agonizing story of Lise, a former prostitute who finds her vocation among a society of nuns in post-war Paris, and is a good example of how Godden can write of truly horrifying and heart-breaking things without being more graphic than is absolutely necessary.

China Court is a tale of an English country house in Cornwall and of the family who has lived in it for over 100 years. Drawing on the medieval Book of Hours, Godden intertwines the five generations with the ‘Hours’ of China Court, from Lauds to Matins.

The Creatures’ Choir is a lovely translation she made of the French nun Carmen Bernos de Gasztold’s Choral de Betes. An absolutely delightful collection of poems based on the prayers of 26 of God’s creatures, ranging from the swallow to the starfish, the peacock, the mother hen, the hedgehog and the flea.

In This House of Brede is personally one of my very favorite books. Here’s an excerpt from a review I wrote of it for YLCF:

From the very first pages of Brede I knew that this book was like nothing I had read before. It is the story of a wealthy and successful career woman who enters a Benedictine monastery in England in the 1950’s, and much of the detail of cloistered life was taken from Godden’s own experience of living in the gatehouse of an English Abbey for three years. Philippa Talbot’s story is woven amid that of the threads of the other nuns and novices in a tapestry as complex and beautiful as the richly-colored ceremonial vestments made with loving skill in the workrooms of Brede Abbey. It is a tale that is strangely gripping for its quiet setting of shaded cloisters and flowering parkland. But the real venue is the hearts of the women who inhabit the monastery, and the true drama lies in the choices they make whether or not to give Christ full sway in their lives. It is an absolutely gorgeous book, radiant with spiritual truth and written with a lovely starkness that only emphasizes the renunciations these courageous women have made. But it is a starkness that glows beneath with warmth and fire and godly love, and it rings with what Phyllis Tickle in her introduction calls a ‘bright sadness’.

I do hope that this helps a little if you have never met Rumer Godden. I think she’s well worth getting to know.

"The stitch of a book is its words." ~R.G.

Lucy Maud Weather

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

"There's such a lot of different Annes in me. I sometimes think that is why I'm such a troublesome person. If I was just the one Anne it would be ever so much more comfortable, but then it wouldn't be half so interesting." ~Anne Shirley

My sister and I have always held that this is the perfect time of year to be reading a Lucy Maud Montgomery book. No matter how many times they’ve been read and re-read—the condition of my beloved paperbacks is quite appalling!—there is just something about September that seems to evoke a mood sufficiently wistful to fully savor the beauty of her books.

I have only to think of them and the precious friends they gave me, Emily, Pat, Kilmeny, Valancy and, of course, the immortal Anne, to feel enlivened with lovely ideals. But to fall into one of them: to settle down amongst the orchards and hill fields that Lucy Maud brought to life before us, to amble along Lover’s Lane with Anne wrapped in a reverie, or to see the home lights of Silver Bush winking out comfortably in an autumn night—this is pure bliss. For me it’s grounding and good medicine, like a heart-to-heart talk with a beloved companion. And trusty companions these books have surely proved themselves to be, in my girlhood and in my womanhood alike. They gave me a vision long ago of what a beauty-filled life could look like in a completely ordinary setting, and for that I will be eternally grateful. And whenever I need reinforcement, it’s never farther away than the second shelf from the bottom of my bookcase.

Our summer was over. It had been a beautiful one. We had known the sweetness of common joys, the delight of dawns, the dream and glamour of noontides, the long, purple peace of carefree nights. We had had the pleasure of bird song, of silver rain on greening fields, of storm among the trees, of blossoming meadows, and of the converse of whispering leaves. We had had brotherhood with wind and star, with books and tales, and hearth fires of autumn. Ours had been the little, loving tasks of every day, blithe companionship, shared thoughts, and adventuring. Rich were we in the memory of those opulent months that had gone from us–richer than we then knew or suspected. And before us was the dream of spring. It is always safe to dream of spring. For it is sure to come; and if it be not just as we have pictured it, it will be infinitely sweeter.

~Lucy Maud Montgomery, The Story Girl

originally published on ylcf.org

The Life Imagined

Saturday, August 28th, 2010

Tasha Tudor ~ August 28, 1915--June 18, 2008

Distrust any enterprise that requires new clothes.

The Henry David gem had been buzzing at my mind all day, and all day I had been tenaciously smiling it down.

I had smiled it down when I cut out one of the skirt pieces upside down, and when I had to trot back to the store to buy the lining fabric I had somehow managed to forget, and—gritting my teeth a bit—when I found I had to rip a whole long careful row of neat stitches that just happened to be on the wrong side of the fabric.

“I need to do this for myself,” I insisted to the air as I took a deep breath and hunched over the billows of pale blue eyelet on my lap.

For weeks I had been so busy I’d scarcely had time to breathe. I had a barnful of newly acquired baby goats and lambs and a whole litany of new responsibilities to go with them. A household regimen threatening to implode under the pressure of forestalled spring cleaning. A garden that had gone in by the sheer grit of an exhaustion wrung out into one last burst of fatigued productivity. Not to mention a world of needs and their care that clamored outside the boundary markers of my own particular ‘vineyard’. And we were leaving on vacation the next morning, leaving all those babies and seedlings and dust bunnies to the oversight of others and packing-ironing-unpacking-repacking-cleaning-out-the-fridge-changing-the-sheets-watering-the-garden-remembering-to-feed-the-fish-and-don’t-forget-the-chicken-feed to get on the road first thing the next day.

So, of course, it followed, that the very best thing I could possibly do for myself was to make a new dress.

After the incident with the seam ripper I stood up for a stretch, thinking a cup of tea would clear my head a bit. And maybe still the pounding in my temples. On the way downstairs I stopped by my desk and checked my email.

A moment later I was in my chair with my head in my hands, weeping.

Tasha Tudor had died.

Peacefully, in her own home, the message said. With her loved ones around her and all the evidences crowding in of a life lived well. Well? Thriving, glowing, fine and high and noble! The life she had imagined and gone after with a passion rarely seen, in our age or any other. The life that had become a world, for her family and friends, and for those of us all over the globe privileged to have a share in it through her books and paintings.

The news drew me up, halted me in my mad career through the day. Sickened me with the sham I had been making of my own ‘life imagined’ of late. All she had imparted by her life and her works seemed to wash over me in a flood and mingle with my tears. Those little Nubian goats out in the barn were her doing—I had fallen in love amid the pages of her books. The dream of a kitchen hearthfire and fairy rings in the garden and magical Christmases and ‘farm-fresh eggs’ (from the most coddled chickens, of course)–a homeplace where the old ways were revered (though of an 1850’s variety, instead of an 1830’s)—these all came down to me through the goodly lineage of Tasha Tudor.

Or they rose up in me, rather, latent longings that were as much me as the blue eyes I’d gotten from my grandfather and my slightly crooked smile. Tasha Tudor helped me to validate them, and a thousand others. To look the world and its expectations in the eye and say, “Well, hang it, this is the way I want to live my life!” This careful attendance upon beauty—this devotion to the moments that make for real living—for myself and those I love. Alone in the garden; sipping tea with a kindred spirit at my kitchen table or feasting with friends in the dining room; nuzzling a thoroughly spoiled goat in the barn; welcoming my husband back to a haven at the end of the day. I embraced the choices offered me as a young woman in the era into which I had been born. And I chose this.

And Tasha had given me the courage to do it.

Autumn clematis ~ Tasha called it virgin's bower

But I’d gotten sidetracked over the unthinking course of a busy year; lost some of my moorings. I had forgotten how unnecessary some things were, and how essentially vital were others. I’d given my perfectionism its head and I’d jostled along brain-rattled in its wake. When choices had pressed in hard all around me, I hadn’t kept faith with the original vision. The vision was rooted in deeper things, of course, than a fellow human creature’s chosen lifestyle: it was anchored in the eternal and completely unique calling of God on my life. It had to do not only with the temporal elements of making a home, but with the undying realities sustaining it.

I had forgotten.

The life Tasha Tudor lived so graciously was her choice. Likewise, no matter what I had been saying to myself to the contrary, the pace I’d been keeping over all those weary months was my choice. It had been my choice to respond to every need that came to my ears as if I alone in the universe could answer it. It had been my choice to prefer one opportunity over another simply because it seemed more ‘spiritual’ and important, personal desires notwithstanding. It had been my choice to try and do it all when I realized that personal desires were getting the shaft.

Every day I have the opportunity to choose how I am going to live—this is a great privilege but also a great responsibility. The way of our dreams–the Alpine Path, if you will–is not a leisurely stroll in a shaded wood, or even a pleasant hike up a rolling grade. It is a daily battle. A limiting unto more freedom. A devotion and a discipline, and it will sometimes require a shedding or a pruning or a sundering. It means that I cannot be choice-less in the matter because every day’s fruit is only a result of the choices I have made all along the way, from the time I get up till the time I go to bed.

Into this equilibrium for many Christians is added the uniquely evangelical bugbear of separating the ‘sacred’ from the ‘secular’. The judging between options and activities based on so-called ‘spiritual merit’.

The low priority of certain desires on the mere basis that they are mine and must therefore somehow be less than God’s will. The notion that tiredness is next to godliness. The goading to keep pace with the frenzied music of the world around me rather than the still, soft music that God would sing over my life. Viewing life as a compartmentalized series of duties and earned pleasures instead of the holistic dance of sacramental joy that it is.

The voices hammer loud in my head:

“What? Devotion to a lifestyle? There is nothing eternal in that outlook—it is all wrapped up in temporal things that won’t endure. And besides, you need to be out witnessing rather than letting your self-image get tied up in that house and whatever it is that you do there.”

But then I brush fingers with the great ones and my heart breathes out the pure air of eternity:

“Don’t be too easily convinced that God really wants you to do all sorts of work you needn’t do. Each must do his duty ‘in that state of life to which God has called him.’ Remember that a belief in the virtues of doing for doing’s sake is characteristically feminine, characteristically American, and characteristically modern: so that three veils may divide you from the correct view! There can be intemperance in work just as in drink. What feels like zeal may be only fidgets or even the flattering of one’s self-importance. As MacDonald says, ‘In holy things may be unholy greed!’ And by doing what ‘one’s station and its duties’ does not demand, one can make oneself less fit for the duties it does demand and so commit some injustice. Just you give Mary a chance as well as Martha!”

C.S. Lewis, Letters to An American Lady

“You can’t witness to a computer screen,” said one friend in exasperation at this supposed dichotomy.

Josephine amid the forget-me-nots

But because of Tasha Tudor and her example to live the life uniquely suited to one’s calling, I can hold my head up a little higher and say, “No, you can’t do much witnessing to a computer. Or a row of tomato plants or a loaf of bread. Or to a barnful of animals, but it’s highly unlikely they would need it. I prefer to let them witness to me.”

And it’s at that computer screen and in that garden and kneeling amid velvety, inquisitive noses that I find God. It’s in the quiet mornings of a quiet life. It’s in poetry and music and fabulous talks with my husband on the front porch over a glass of wine. And with my friends over a pot (or three) of tea. In novels and in the classics of my faith and in old cookbooks. This is me. This is my life—the life I have been called and equipped to live. No one else will have the same destiny with God that I would amid flowers and goats and cats and dogs and stories and duets—this one is tailor-made for me. And for some reason, this is where He most pleases to meet me and show me Himself. This is where Christ dwells in me and where eternity touches time. And that’s what it’s all about.

I grew to hate that silly dress I had been stewing over when I got the news of Tasha’s death. It’s an absolute dream, a frothy cloud after a 1950′s cut. But just like the tare that inspired it, it’s too much. Too fussy; too burdened with its own presence. It represents a false me, a me that frets over stubborn projects just because I happened to think them up. A me that says I can do it all and still have grey matter to spare. And save the world while I’m at it.

A me that is not me. Not really. And it’s such a relief to be reminded.

So today I’m celebrating Tasha Tudor’s life and all the determined joy with which she lived it. I’m keeping her memory in the keeping of my dreams—many of which have been kindled into life by her own. My grateful and heartfelt love follows her, and my teacup is raised with another bit of  Thoreau that Tasha’s friends will instantly recognize:

I learned this, at least, that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

edited to add: In honor of Tasha’s birthday today, I am offering a lovely first edition copy of ‘Tasha Tudor’s Bedtime Book’ at a special price. Visit the Bookshop and sort by ‘Date Added’ to see it!

Winged Prayers

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of. ~Tennyson

Overcome with this image of prayer from George MacDonald’s brilliant and bewildering 1895 romance, Lilith:

Some people are always at their prayers.—Look! look! There goes one!”

He pointed right up into the air. A snow-white pigeon was mounting, with quick and yet quicker wing-flap, the unseen spiral of an ethereal stair. The sunshine flashed quivering from its wings.

“I see a pigeon!” I said.

“Of course you see a pigeon,” rejoined the raven, “for there is the pigeon! I see a prayer on its way…”

…”How can a pigeon be a prayer?” I said. “I understand, of course, how it should be a fit symbol or likeness for one; but a live pigeon to come out of a heart!”

“It must puzzle you! It cannot fail to do so!”

“A prayer is a thought, a thing spiritual!” I pursued.

“Very true! But if you understood any world besides your own, you would understand your own much better.—When a heart is really alive, then it is able to think live things. There is one heart all whose thoughts are strong, happy creatures, and whose very dreams are lives. When some pray, they lift heavy thoughts from the ground, only to drop them on it again; others send up their prayers in living shapes, this or that, the nearest likeness to each. All live things were thoughts to begin with, and are fit therefore to be used by those that think. When one says to the great Thinker:—’Here is one of thy thoughts: I am thinking it now!’ that is a prayer—a word to the big heart from one of its own little hearts.—Look, there is another!”

This time the raven pointed his beak downward—to something at the foot of a block of granite. I looked, and saw a little flower. I had never seen one like it before, and cannot utter the feeling it woke in me by its gracious, trusting form, its colour, and its odour as of a new world that was yet the old. I can only say that it suggested an anemone, was of a pale rose-hue, and had a golden heart.

“That is a prayer-flower,” said the raven.

“I never saw such a flower before!” I rejoined.

“There is no other such. Not one prayer-flower is ever quite like another,” he returned.

“How do you know it a prayer-flower?” I asked.

“By the expression of it,” he answered. “More than that I cannot tell you. If you know it, you know it; if you do not, you do not.”

…But I did see that the flower was different from any flower I had ever seen before; therefore I knew that I must be seeing a shadow of the prayer in it; and a great awe came over me to think of the heart listening to the flower.

from Lilith, by George MacDonald,1895

text compliments of Project Gutenberg

The Bard’s Birthday

Monday, April 26th, 2010

We’ve always called him Uncle Will. And we always make much ado about his birthday.

William Shakespeare, April 1564-April 1616

"Then in the number let me pass untold, Though in thy store's account I one must be… Make but my name thy love, and love that still, And then thou lov'st me for my name is Will." ~Sonnet 136

"All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts..." ~As You Like It

"What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god." ~Hamlet

"And this, our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything." ~As You Like It

We toasted his memory–and his gift to us all–with gallons of hot tea and a Queen’s Cake laced with rosewater. In recitations and tokens and songs. But it was our five year-old Juliet that stole the show and carried the day.

She stood before us in a too-long gown of her sisters’, tiny braids sticking out of either side of her head, and grinned.

Good night! Good night!” she chirped, like one of Titania’s fairie fleet, “pawting is such–,” faltering with a flicker of dismay. But it was overcome in a moment. “Pawting is such good–,” then she halted altogether at the mouthed exhortations of her mother and sisters.

What?” she demanded, wrinkling up her little nose.

Sweet–sweet sorrow,” supplied her oldest sister in a stage whisper.

“SWEET sowwow,” our Juliet resumed. Then with a deep, dismissive sigh, as if returning to her character in disdain of all distractions, she fluffed out her skirt and went on. “That I shall say good night till it be mowwow!”

We all clapped politely and she bowed with a pretty grace. But in my mind I pictured the great Bard himself watching the scene, slapping his knee and howling with laughter over the great good joke of the thing.

Happy Birthday, Uncle Will. Here’s rosemary–that’s for remembrance…

Something Tookish

Monday, April 12th, 2010

The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien

There was a fabulous question posed over at The Rabbit Room this morning that all good Tolkies will hail with a joyful recognition: Are you a Took or a Baggins?

It reminded  me of this piece I wrote for YLCF a couple of years ago after my first wild and lovely sojourn in Middle Earth had come to an end:

When Philip and I finished the last book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy I sat in silence for some time, the tears chasing one another down my cheeks, wrapped in a lovely melancholy over the end of the Third Age and the pilgrimage of the fair folk beyond the Grey Havens. I couldn’t stop brooding over what it must have been to have had a mind like Tolkien’s: crammed with such beauties and terrors: the birthplace a world so real that a reader’s heart literally breaks over not being able to journey there and see the shining heights of Minas Tirith or race on a flying charger across the plains of Rohan or chat with a hobbit beside a companionable fire over a pipe and a pint. What a master Tolkien was. It is not lightly that I say I thank God for him. Truth lives in his work, at times shimmering and glowing, at times piercing with the sharp and often painful flash of lightning.

Long afterward I am still mulling over the insights that continue to appeal to me, blooming under my feet as it were, like the lowly, lovely elanor in the glades of Lothlorien, smiling up at me as I walk along the way. There are vast stores to be mined here, and great critics have done it better and more thoroughly than I ever could. My reflections are of a humble nature, and perhaps simplistic in the light of the scholarly treatment already devoted to this work. But I cannot help but make this story mine through the acknowledgment of its verities, claiming its meanings and symbols for my own.

The Lord of the Rings is not a perfect allegory or anything of that sort, any more than Lewis’ Narnia was. And that’s why I love it so, why I believe it carries such power at its heart. He doesn’t spell everything out for us; he doesn’t merely recast true but familiar stories in a different mold. He makes us think, and ache and search—he speaks first to our hearts and then our heads, in a way that, for me at least, was a humbling and intensely personal experience.

Imperfect analogies have a force that their cousin, the allegory, sometimes lacks. They demonstrate the universal potency of Truth, under other circumstances than our own, on unfamiliar ground, even in different worlds. There are pictures and symbols of the Christian life, with all its raptures and perils, woven throughout The Lord of the Rings. Frodo’s quest spoke vividly to me of the supreme challenge of Life in this fallen world. I saw in the hardships that he and his friends encountered an image of each faithful Christian’s experience upon the earth, ‘creeping upwards’, often upon hands and knees, sometimes even carried by fellow pilgrims. A life blinded by tears; a mission that those closest to us may never understand or even recognize. (One of the most poignant moments in the films, to me, was the wistful look that passed between the four hobbits, at home once more in the Shire, as they sat in the Green Dragon surrounded by kith and kin that had absolutely no idea what Frodo and his friends had been through for their sakes. And the gentle sigh of acknowledgement that they never would know.)

As believers, the most intense battles often rage within the secret of our own minds and hearts, and yet they can be no less terrifying than the fires of Mt. Doom, or hopeless-seeming than that last valiant diversion at the Black Gate of Mordor. Our enemies are not orcs and trolls, but ‘the world, the flesh and the devil’. Our aid lies not in elves and wizards, but in the prayers of our compatriots, in angels from heaven, in, above all, the promised help and presence of the Holy Spirit. But reading these books has made me long to ‘fight the good fight’ with more perseverance than ever. It has reminded me of the valor required of the servants of Christ, and the futility of any campaign waged against the victory He has already secured. It has made me long to throw my hat in the ring for Beauty and Truth and Goodness, not only for the sake of this tired, hurting old world, but because I believe in that which is to come.

Of all the tools at a writer’s disposal, none, perhaps, is more effective than that great device of perspective. An author must consider carefully the vantage point from which his tale is to be told: which character or characters will lend their inmost thoughts to the reader and which ones will be more remote, supplying only actions and gestures and words to convey their response to the unfolding events. In Tolkein’s hands, point of view is the blade of a sure swordsman, striking true to its mark with a keen thrill of insight. From our first acquaintance with Bilbo Baggins to Sam Gamgee’s last contented statement, the effect unfolds with great simplicity and authority, until we realize at the end that the characters we identify with more than all the others are the hobbits. They are the only ones that we get inside of; they are the ones that awaken our deepest sympathies and over whose triumphs we rejoice most ardently.

I can’t help but believe that this was entirely intentional: of all the marvelous creations of Tolkein’s fancy, hobbits are the most like us. Frodo and his ilk are the least likely of heroes; they are little and simple and great fanciers of creature comforts. But their halfling stature conceals a sturdy soul forged of steel, capable of rigors and valors unlooked-for in the common hours. In the hobbits, Tolkein paints an endearingly accurate picture of the average Christian and what he or she is capable of; they illustrate most poignantly the exquisite heavenly irony of God using something so puny as a human on a divine mission.

Like us, hobbits are very much of earth. And yet their nature sings of eternal adventures—irresistibly so. In The Hobbit, the placid Bilbo is first awakened to this inner yearning by way of the mysterious songs of uninvited dwarves around his fireside:

And as they sang…something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick…

No matter how quiet and ordinary and Baggins Bilbo may have desired his life to be, the untamed blood of his Took ancestors would not lie dormant in him forever. We, too, are often surprised by longings that flame unexpectedly within our prosaic earth-bound little bodies, soaring heavenward like vanishing sparks and taking with them any hope of our being content on a mere temporal plane again. Some latent Tookish trait wakes up to the essential Romance of being alive and being in Christ, and with a shout of joy and a brandishing of heavenly steel, we’re up and off on the adventure of eternity, without a thought of the tame, terrestrial existence we’ve left behind. It’s that great pilgrim spirit of Christianity that proves we are citizens of another country and have sworn our allegiance to another King:

And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.

Hebrews 11: 13-16

Like Frodo and his friends, we’ll all have our battle scars to show at the end of days, no less valid for the fact that our Lord may be the only one who knows of them. And like the hobbits, we’ll celebrate with a joy to which all our joys have been but a prelude when we finally see our King come into His kingdom. It’s that blessed hope that makes of this life an epic adventure, with an ending that lends a reflection of truth to the finest fairytales and puts the poets’ best dreams to shame. And the fact that we already know the climax of the story doesn’t take away one shade of the surprise.

Godspeed, my friends, on our common Quest. May you know what is the hope of His calling and the exceeding greatness of His power to us who believe…

Wisdom from a beloved author

Friday, April 2nd, 2010

I didn’t realize how desperately I was waiting to hear someone say this until I read it in print:

Bess Streeter Aldrich, 1881-1954

Why quarrel with a writer over realism and idealism?  After all an author is a glass through which a picture of life is projected.  The picture falls upon the pages of the writer’s manuscript according to the mental and emotional contours of that writer.  It is useless to try to change those patterns.  If one writer does not see life in terms of grime and dirt, adulteries and debaucheries, it does not follow that those sordid things do not exist.  If another does not see life in terms of faith and love, sympathy and good deeds, it does not follow that those characteristics do not exist.  I grow weary of hearing the sordid spoken of as real life, the wholesome as Pollyanna stuff.  I contend that a writer may portray some of the decent things of life around him and reserve the privilege to call that real life too.  And if this be literary treason; make the most of it.

from Why I Live in a Small Town by Bess Streeter Aldrich
(reprinted from the Ladies’ Home Journal, 1933)

The beauty is every bit as real as the sordid.

And, what’s more, the beauty is True. It’s why I even dare to take up my own pen.

Thank you, dear Bess, for affirming me to the depths of my writer’s heart. And thank you, dear Sallie, for pointing me in the right direction.