Love Begets

Monday, March 31st, 2014

On November 22 of last year, I lost my voice. I’m not talking laryngitis; I mean my words. They scattered from me like a covey of quail, and I knew, standing there amid the ragged stubble of a waning year, that there was nothing I could do to call them back, nothing but lean into the cold wind of sorrow and wait. Words, like all winged things, have a life of their own; believing in their return often feels like believing in the hope of spring when the whole world is laid barren and birdless by the ravages of winter.

But on November 22, I was too tired and sad to care if they ever came back. That was the day that my dog Caspian died, and some fundamental innocence in me died with him. The past two years have just about broken my heart, not by the ruin of a single blow, but by the slow-growing burden of accumulated sorrow, of grief upon grief that has seemed relentless at times. But when Caspian was diagnosed with cancer last spring, the very day we were supposed to leave on a long-awaited jaunt to the sea in our ’62 Airstream, it was too much to bear. I couldn’t bear it, in fact: when I heard the diagnosis coming out of the specialist’s mouth and saw the tears gathering in my husband’s eyes, a great, black cavern seemed to open inside of me and I felt myself falling into a bottomless place haunted by all my worst fears. The vet droned on unintelligibly about how there was nothing that could be done and what to expect in the coming days, but my soul was crying out in silence: Jesus, catch me! (He did, by the way. Strong arms shot out of that darkness and held me so tightly I could almost feel them about my physical body. I am here, that grip told me, in words beyond words.)

“How long?” Philip said in a voice that sounded nothing like Philip’s.

The vet was cautious. “Weeks to months,” he said. “But it’s an advanced case, and moving fast.”

We walked out into the sunshine of an April afternoon with Caspian tugging blissfully on the leash, ecstatic to be released after a night’s stay at the best veterinary hospital in the state. As soon as we were in the car, Philip and I stared at one another, frightened by the anguish in each other’s eyes.

“Let’s take him,” I choked. “Let’s go home and pack that Airstream if it takes all night and let’s get on the road by dawn. Let’s run away from all this sadness and give Caspian the trip to the beach of his life.”

And that is precisely what we did. If there’s ever been a heart on this earth that loved that Airstream or our island destination more than Philip and me, it was Caspian. In the ten years of tramping about in our Silver Girl, Caspian had only been left behind once—and he was so devastated we vowed never to do it again. Caspian wasn’t taking any chances, though. He always knew when we were even talking about packing up for another adventure, and would park himself by the door of the trailer, refusing to budge until the moment of departure, wherein, assured of a seat in the car with his nose on the console, he could finally relax. Sick as he was, this time was no exception. I actually had to feed him his breakfast in the Explorer the morning we left as he’d loaded himself up before I had hardly opened the kitchen door.

Philip kept calling it our “Shadowlands” trip, and, indeed, there was a keenness to those sunlit days that only sorrow can lend, a sharp brilliance against which both pain and pleasure stood out in dazzling clarity. For Caspian, still feeling well enough to enjoy everything, it was a dream come true: he got to eat whatever he wanted and do whatever he pleased. He got to spend whole days at Philip’s side as he worked (the Airstream doubles as “remote office” by day) and long, late afternoons on the beach with us or strolling the fishing pier in the cool of the evening. He had half of whatever I was eating at any given time, and he even got a sip of ale at the oyster bar on the wharf. Indeed, if we were living in the shadowlands, Caspian was frisking the foothills of heaven.

On the beach he was always off lead—for the first time in his life. Suddenly all the leashes and life-jackets and relentless safety of the past twelve years seemed silly. Worse than silly: in this light they looked like life-killers; joy-stealers. I had feared losing Caspian since the night we brought him home; I remember sitting on the kitchen floor clutching that squirming bundle of six week-old fluff to my heart and bursting into tears. It terrified me how much I loved him. And it terrified me that there was a world out there so suddenly swarming with Dangerous Things that could hurt him or take him from me. There were cars, and stagnant pools tainted with evil viruses, and ticks and vaccine reactions. And there was cancer, the thing I feared most of all. Now that it had come, I could not fail to see that my gentle Lord had softened this sentence of death with a radiant milieu of mercies. The very fact that we were all here together for a few fleeting weeks in a place that held some of the dearest memories of our lives was an unmistakable kindness. And Caspian’s illness did not mar the trip as much as it illumined it, revealing each moment for the fire-hearted gem that it was. I watched him trot free along the shore with the inquisitive abandon of a puppy and I wanted to run with him, throwing off the fears that fettered my joys to earth, free as the wind and the swooping gulls and the curls of foam tossed up on the murmuring tide—free as my dying dog, whose happiness anchored me in the moment even as my soul took wing with this glimpse of undying things. It reminded me of that scene at the end of The Last Battle when everyone was running together with such gathering gladness into Aslan’s Country, the real Narnia. We caught Caspian’s joy, Philip and I, racing with him along a deserted beach in the saffron radiance of a dying day, and the incandescence of it will be with us for life.

I wrote in my journal: So here is what I want to remember and never forget: Anxiety is the devil. Fear is a taste of hell because it cuts us off from the ever-offered rest of God’s love. And fear cannot do one damn thing to avert the thing feared. Sorrow, on the other hand, is a kind friend, and when it comes, grace comes, too, and all the tender mercies of God. All fear is the fear of loss and death; all love comes with a price tag of pain; all true sorrow has its counterpoint of joy. And it’s real. We’re living it in the most vivid way. And if we’re running along the beach laughing at one moment and weeping over the grief that is coming the next, well then, this is life abundant, the full package. And the joy is more real than the grief because the joy is forever and the pain is for but the passing shadow of this life.

Beyond all expectation, Caspian lived to travel with us once more to our island refuge in mid-September, though by that time he was completely blind. The dignity with which he accepted this sad new development was one of the most touching things I have ever seen. The vet explained to me that dogs don’t regard “suffering” as a concept the way we humans do; they are generally very philosophical about hardship, accepting what comes their way with deeply instinctual adaptability. I witnessed that first-hand when Caspian lost his sight: after a day or so of deep confusion, he shook off the gloom and started feeling his way around the house with his nose, reacquainting himself with thresholds and walls and furniture. He nosed his way up our steep staircase, gingerly at first, and then with astonishing confidence. He even wanted to go to the barn with us in the evenings as he’d always done, though it must have been frightening to have the goats and sheep and chickens all swarming about and not be able to see them.

The island was no different: Caspian didn’t have to see to know exactly where he was and to be excited about it (or to run up to strangers, barking an ecstatic greeting, only to run right past them). And though the disease had certainly progressed, neither Philip nor I had the least doubt that our brave little dog was happy—glad just to be with us, salt-kissed and sun-warmed in a kindly breeze under a generous sky. Whenever we were on the beach, I would bury my face in that gorgeous spotted ruff of his (I always said it looked like the ermine collar on a princely robe) just because I could. Our days with him were dwindling, and we all knew it. On the last afternoon, I stayed behind on the beach while Philip took Caspian back to the Airstream, and as I watched their retreating figures, my eyes burned with tears. It was the end of an era. The loss of a particular innocence loomed: Philip and I both had lost dogs in our lives—but we had never lost our dog. Caspian was so much a part of us, we hardly knew “us” without him. We weren’t just “dog people,” ardently as we love the canine species as a whole. We were Caspian people.

So, the day came in late November when Philip and I had to prove our love to this faithful companion of ours by making the decision that every lover of dogs prays they will never have to face. Yet even that black day was made tender by mercies: the sudden, unmistakable downturn that left us no doubts; the fact that we were both with him; the gentle expiration with his head on Philip’s lap. Our kind-hearted vet hugged me hard when it was all over. “I’ve rarely seen a dog loved as much as Caspian,” he told me gently. But that’s no credit to us. Caspian was the kind of dog that little children wrote letters to and perfect strangers were smitten by. He had a weakness for whole sticks of butter stolen from the countertop and a human-like cock of his head when he was trying to make out one of the several hundred words in his mental inventory. My best friends wept when they heard Caspian was sick, and when he died, one dear soul spent a couple of weeks trying to bring herself to break the news to her nine year-old daughter.

When we came home that afternoon to a thunderously quiet house, we sat in the silence and counted off the things that Caspian had taught us in his living and dying: enthusiastic inhabitance of the present moment; unfettered enjoyment of life; courage in suffering. Philip said gently that maybe someday I would be able to write about it. But in the weeks after Caspian died, I could hardly speak in coherent sentences, much less write them. My journal from that time looks like psychological chicken scratch. The one clear, strong comfort was our shared conviction that Caspian is. If there’s a bone of theological contention that leaves me cold, it’s the argument of whether animals will be in heaven. No mere sentimental crutch, my doctrinal position on the matter is simple if not a little incredulous: Why the heck not? It’s one of those questions upon which Scripture is notoriously silent, but I see absolutely no reason to interpret silence in this case as “no.” All I know of the character of God speaks to the contrary: if there’s one thing in the infinite universe this quaking heart of mine doesn’t fear, it’s the possibility of imagining God better than He is.

“I wonder if the spirits of all the pussy folk and doggy folk I’ve loved will meet me with purrs and yaps of pleasure at the pearly gates,” L. M. Montgomery’s whimsical heroine Pat Gardiner ponders. But dear “Grandpa George” MacDonald takes a firmer stance: “I know of no reason why I should not look for the animals to rise again…If the Father will raise his children, why should he not also raise those whom he has taught his little ones to love? Love is the one bond of the universe, the heart of God, the life of his children: if animals can be loved, they are loveable; if they can love, they are yet more plainly loveable: love is eternal; how then should its object perish?”

We knew we’d been marked as dog lovers for life; Caspian had settled that question irrevocably. But in the first deadness of grief we declared we never wanted another dog.

Then we said maybe, in a hundred years or so.

Then we said it would have to be an Australian shepherd, just like Caspian.

And then, before either of us dreamed we were ready, a five-pound ball of downy blue merle pranced into our sadness and lit it all the colors of the rainbow. Suddenly, our mourning for one dog was not mutually exclusive with the sweet anticipation of another. The woman we got her from (a saint among dog breeders!) was so gentle with my fears of circumventing the grief process: she told me that when one of her dogs goes to a home where a beloved companion has recently been lost she believes they have a special calling to care for wounded hearts. I can vouch for that: when Philip and I met our wee lass for the first time, we handed our hearts over without question. This pup had a vocation on her pretty little head—it was as obvious as that seagull-shaped “V” on the bridge of her perfect little nose.

We named her Bonnie Blue (her mother’s name is Katie Scarlett, of course), and in the weeks since she’s come to live with us, a strong new joy has been swelling in my heart like the unblighted bulbs of early spring. Colors appear where once there was only the hard earth of sadness; hope flocks home, birdlike, one dove at a time. My words are coming back, as well, in this sudden thaw, and old ambition gleams out between patches of melting snow. All this from the advent of a puppy who’s not quite housebroken and nips holes in my favorite skirts and eats out of the litter box? Absolutely. That’s what love does—it kindles and warms and wakens. Love is a creative force: it always begets in some way or another. And this particular love is resurrecting gladness in my heart, reminding me that winter must give way at last to warmth and sunshine, in nature and in life. Who says dogs can’t be grace-bearers? We sat in the pasture the other day, Bonnie and I, and watched the sandhill cranes swirling overhead on a persistently northward course. “That means spring is coming, Bonnie-girl,” I told her, as she cocked her head at their far-off cries. “And you won’t believe how beautiful it’s going to be.”

I’ll spare the details of how absurd Philip and I have made ourselves with puppy-love the past six weeks. But I will say that we’ve remembered Caspian more tenderly than ever since Bonnie has come into our lives. Though each dog’s personality is unquestionably unique, it’s been sweet to see the similarities in the breed that have made us such devoted “Aussie people.” With the remembering, however, comes the ghost of old fears, the temptation to snatch and grab and worry. Menaces rise on every side so that I want to clutch Bonnie in my arms and sit down on the kitchen floor and cry. How easily I fret my joy away over improbable things! And yet, it’s love itself that arrests my panicked heart, soothing me back down into the quiet of Caspian’s best and most unforgettable gift to us: Fearlessness.

Love wildly! Love exuberantly! his doggie soul proclaimed in a thousand ways.

But—for Heaven’s sake—love without fear.


Flying in the Face

Monday, August 20th, 2012

A year ago I embarked on a reckless (and often humiliating) venture into the French language, and to mark the occasion I’m re-posting this piece I wrote for The Rabbit Room last summer about my decision to take the plunge.

But before I can do that, I find myself honor-bound in an equally-reckless pledge to my friend Katie. I gave her my word that I would share the following vignette in preamble, a testament to my progress with this elusive tongue. It’s hard to refuse a friend who is wiping the laughter-induced tears from her eyes–and I love her so much it’s hard to refuse her anything. But I will be perfectly honest: I don’t want to tell this story. It will give me away and it’s downright embarrassing. Mayhap my kind readers will get a good-natured laugh at my expense, however. After all, it never does to take oneself too seriously…

Last month, my husband and I were sitting in the lobby of a beautiful old hotel off the coast of Georgia. We were celebrating my birthday with a little apéritif before journeying over to a neighboring island for dinner. As has become our custom, we were chatting about our day in French. He knew all about my day, of course, as he’d spent nearly every moment of it in my company. But it’s a good way for me to practice my tenses and verbs, and always brings up vocabulary I’ve never encountered before (remember that). Perhaps I let my birthday go to my head; perhaps the lovely atmosphere induced a sense of overarching confidence. At any rate, I got a bit above myself, and started telling Philip about the nap I had taken that afternoon: such a sieste grande, in fact, that I had actually awakened to find I had, ahem, drooled a bit on my pillow.

I haven’t learned the French for ‘drool’ yet, being that it’s not a word I seem to have much need of on a daily basis. But in my optimism, I simply snatched a word I do know–l’eau–and cheerfully informed my mystified husband that I was, indeed, sleeping so well that I’d had the water coming from my mouth.

As soon as I had uttered this unfortunate statement, I realized to my horror that a woman was passing within earshot and that there was no doubt that she had heard me. This would not have troubled me in the least, excepting the fact that we had seen her around the hotel, and, what’s more–heard her. As soon as she had opened her mouth, Philip and I both knew she was French. Probably Parisian. How striking it can be to hear your native language being spoken in a foreign land, howsoever imperfectly, and our ears naturally prick up to the sound. Bless her heart–she probably wished to goodness that hers hadn’t.

I can only imagine what she was thinking as, after a brief, incredulous glance at me, she continued on, only to hear Philip’s heartfelt consolation:

“Désolé! Je regrette que tu as un problème avec l’eau qui vient de ta bouche quand tu dors!”

When Philip and I were in Paris a few years ago, he took me to the Annick Goutal shop on the Rue Bellechasse to buy me some perfume. With a characteristic twist of City-of-Light-magic, we stepped off the bustling little street and into what seemed for all the world like a nineteenth-century parfumerie. The walls were lined with open shelves painted buttery-cream and touched with gilt, all bearing the same simple offerings of iconic ivory boxes, and in the center of the tiny store stood a mahogany display table, ranged with ribbon-topped bottles of scent like debutantes lined up for a dance.

I was enchanted, and, despite the close quarters, completely overwhelmed. At that moment a clerk in a smart black dress appeared from behind a velvet curtain and proceeded to welcome us in her mellifluous tongue, and to ask how she could be of assistance. Philip answered her at once, with that utterly un-self-conscious ease of his that had been continually amazing me from the moment we’d touched down at Charles de Gaulle. He speaks French beautifully, though he’d be the first to deny it, and I loved watching him banter with the crêpe man at his cart on Saint-Germain and the vendors of roses in the Marché aux Fleurs. (There was the little incident at the Rive Gauche café wherein the woman waiting on us stoutly declared—in English, no less—that there was no such thing as a “croissant with chocolate inside of it”. She must have been having a bad day, for the customer next to us at the counter simply laid down her newspaper and remarked quite calmly, in French, “Of course he means a pain au chocolat.” Which, of course, he did. Without her intervention, I fear we might have gone breakfast-less that morning.)

I smiled rather lamely at the bright Frenchwoman as she showed us around the parfumerie, chattering away over the various top notes and essences. In Paris, as in other places we’ve traveled, it has been my code to wear black and keep my mouth shut, endeavoring to avoid the quintessential stereotype of the American abroad—which is itself a stereotype, I am well aware. Nevertheless, I maintained my credo with a modicum of dignity, sniffing the samples she provided, enjoying the melody of the language as she and my husband conversed over roses and jasmine and honeysuckle, picking up the bottles in turn to read their bewitching names. All was going well until the shopkeeper turned to me with a direct question, her eyes alight with friendly inquiry and her words falling out in a rill of beautiful incomprehensibility. I blushed and blurted that I didn’t speak French, and without batting an eye she repeated her question in English.

Something must have snapped in me at that moment, I remember it with such crystalline clarity. I didn’t want to be on the outside of such a magical language—I wanted to learn the spell that would put such beauty into my mouth, give me the savoir faire to move among the people of a world so different from my own. A latent desire sparked awake in that little gilt and crystal shop and I wanted it so bad I could taste it.

Philip picked up a bottle and grinned at the name.

’Ce Soir ou Jamais’,” the shopkeeper laughed, then turned to me with arched eyebrows and a very Parisian tilt of her head, “Tonight—or never!”

We all laughed together at the melodrama implied and I dutifully wafted the sample under my nose. The breath of Turkish roses was intoxicatingly tempting, with its slightly grassy balance and hints of jasmine and pear—a bit more daring than anything I’d worn before. In the end, however, I went with the lovely La Violette, exquisitely uncomplicated in its old-fashioned reserve. I think Philip could have seen that one coming.

When I told him later of my resolution to learn French he was delighted. It was something we could share, another cord of communion to tangibly express the great mystery of making one life out of two. I have to confess, I am continually humbled by the enthusiastic sympathy with which he greets my desires and the practical ways he accommodates my ambitions. Marriage to him has been a flourishing in good, rich ground; a growing into dreams I didn’t even know I had.

Nevertheless, with all his encouragement, with the boon of a French-speaking husband upon which to try out my halting attempts, year after year slipped by without my acquiring much more confidence or vocabulary than a few highly useful phrases like, “Would you like some ice cream?” and “The chickens are in the henhouse.” I chalked up my remarkable failure to a computer program that didn’t work, an audio series that was missing the book, and general busyness (most mauvais of all). But the fact is, I was just too scared. I blushed when I said things to him, across our own kitchen table. What sounded like music in his mouth got stuck in the back of my throat. I psyched myself up, at his laughing pep talk, to order in French at our favorite boulangerie and then punted at the last minute, asking for “a couple of coffees and two croissants with chocolate inside of them”.

It seemed hopeless.

“You have to be an actor,” Philip told me again and again. “You have to just throw yourself out there—overdo it. Play the role of a French person.”

Of course, it’s what the best language teachers will tell you. (And most other teachers in their own way, I’d imagine, from writing to sky-diving.) Adventure presupposes risk; a step in the direction of a dream is often a deliberate revolt against a comparatively snug complacency. The desire accomplished may be sweet to the soul, but it often exacts a steep price from our ego.

The jolly Chesterton said it best: “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”

If there’s anything God has been teaching me in the past year, it’s that flying in the face of fear is one of the best ways to shock my soul awake, like a plunge into cold water after a wild flight on a rope swing. Impracticability forces me to rely on Him in practical ways. To be sure, the gremlins I’ve endeavored to stare down might look more like Gizmo to stouter souls than mine. But God knows my weakness, and I believe He knows just where to kindle my heart with desire to flame light into those dark places of insecurity and self-reliance. “Delight yourself in the Lord,” the Psalmist urges, “and He will give you the desires of your heart.” God often grants desire, astonishingly and miraculously. But perhaps it’s more wondrous still that He gives it, employing even the lesser yearnings of our nature to keep us alive to that sehnsucht we’re all so blessedly cursed with.

In the light of this charge towards a more holy recklessness, my husband threw down a dare a few weeks ago. He had listened patiently to the latest installment in the Lanier-wants-to-learn-French saga, had assured me for the eleventy-first time that I could do it. Then he looked me straight in the eye.

“I’ll give you one week to find a tutor.”

A tutor? A thousand excuses rushed to my lips: too expensive, too time-consuming. Too terrifying. But instead I took the hand he offered and shook it solemnly.

“Alright.”

In the end, God outdid my expectations by providing a tutor I would not have initially approached. I would have been way too (idiotically) intimidated, though I’ve known him most of my life. An erstwhile missionary to France and an extraordinarily gifted linguist, his French is so perfect even the French admire it. He’s the kind of person I would have been happy to practice my conversational skills on—after about twenty years of study. And instead, not two weeks after my challenge, I was sitting with him in the courtyard of a coffee shop in town, telling him I preferred thé vert over café noir and whether I was going to the supermarket en voiture or à pied. I think God thought it was hilarious.

“For an hour and a half, I’m going to speak pretty much nothing but French to you, Lanier,” he told me. “And you’re going to speak French to me.”

It seemed so preposterous—and conspicuous. I have a horror of looking stupid and my self-conscious sensibilities quailed at the thought of being overheard in my incompetence by the other patrons. I felt like everyone would be staring at me—bemusedly. (As if they were all writers, or something. Writers stare at people. And they write things in notebooks, which can be very disconcerting to highly-sensitive individuals.)

There were evidently no writers among the clientele that afternoon, however, for no one paid us the slightest attention. Several people were smoking and a couple of dogs barked at each other across the courtyard. A delivery truck pulled up in the cobbled alley we were facing with a snort of diesel exhaust.

“This feels like Paris!” my friend laughed, settling back in his chair with a smile of satisfaction. “Vas-tu à l’église ce soir?”

Ce soir—that I knew, and I think I replied that, yes, I was going to church that night. But “ce soir” inevitably summons the words “ou jamais” on its heels, Philip and I have laughed about it so many times since our afternoon in the parfumerie. And out of the jumble of ballet French and random vocabulary I’ve pocketed over the years, I pulled out another adverb, coupling it with the one I had in hand as a sort-of motto for my aventure en Français:

Maintenant ou jamais. Now or never.

And while I’m throwing caution to the winds, it might just be the time to try out a new scent. Pourquoi pas?

God’s Own Fool

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

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

~Michael Card

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

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

“Would you stop?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~Sheldon Vanuaken, Under the Mercy

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

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

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

And neither would I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Liz would love to hear you say that.”

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

I laughed. Right in its ugly face.

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

Beyond Our Ken

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just one more.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why doesn’t it happen anymore?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

originally published June 2011 on The Rabbit Room

A Goodly Heritage

Thursday, November 25th, 2010

the king of the bottomlands

Thanksgiving, like any other beloved memorial with which the years are reckoned, has its own certain types, its venerable standard of ‘brightest and best’ against which each year’s observance is weighed. They may all—or most—be cherished in our hearts, a mellow, collected memory of loved rituals and the loved ones that give them meaning. But for each of us, there is a Thanksgiving or two amid our personal gathering of days that shines out like a beacon, a flashing lamp of gold scattering any hint of dark discontent or faltering hopes and illumining each successive holiday with the inspired light of God’s faithfulness. A Thanksgiving that epitomizes the meaning of the day—a thanks that is as much a forward-reaching as a tallying of the past and grants a brief, albeit unforgettable taste of the gratefulness that should overwhelm us all every moment of our lives.

Such a Thanksgiving was mine the year I was twenty-four.

It wasn’t the first time Philip had taken me to the farm—we had been on a jaunt one Saturday earlier that autumn, scarcely two months into our relationship, on the distinct errand of meeting his grandparents, towards whom he held the most reverential love. I had been honored that day with every possible mark of kindness and affection: a steaming country breakfast during which I sat in the old kitchen trying to take it all in with wide-eyed amazement, nodding helplessly as Philip’s grandmother offered more eggs and blackened bacon and crisp toast with a homemade grape jelly that still haunts my dreams. An afternoon spent wandering over the farm itself (of which Philip’s grandfather knew every square inch) and a sudden opportunity to distinguish myself with a rifle and a tin can. Homemade ice cream for supper simply because I happened to let fall the comment that I loved it. It was one of the happiest days I have known, and deserves a story all its own. I was loved without pretense that day and without scruple—lavishly, as practically as only real salt-of-the-earth people can love, nourished body and soul and enfolded with acceptance simply because I was their Philip’s girlfriend.

But Thanksgiving was a little overwhelming, excited as I was to be going back to the farm and thrilled to hold that place at Philip’s side. The front porch was filled with cousins as we drove into the yard: the little house seemed to be bursting at the seams. Inside the clamor was gorgeously unruly. At this distance it all appears a blur of laugher and bellowed greetings and hand-shakings and back-slappings. What felt like a thousand introductions amid a dizzying array of kinfolk and a constant noise of doors slamming and the happy clanging of pots and pans like a ripening overture issuing from the kitchen. And over all, the pervasive aroma of fried okra, ‘accidentally’ burnt just like Philip liked it.

I hardly fathomed how we all fit into that minuscule kitchen, with its whitewashed walls and open shelves bearing the household wealth of tea pots and home-canned goods. But we managed to form ourselves into a semblance of a line and made our way, plates in hand, down the festal countertop bearing a year’s bounty of garden and orchard (among which my little jar of cranberry conserve made a shy showing). And we all managed, likewise, to find a place to perch with our food: Philip and I sat on the porch swing in the benevolence of one of our mild November days and chatted with cousins on whose names I kept inwardly drilling myself.

Philip’s grandfather had taken us out over the farm on foot, at a firm clip we could scarce keep pace with, pointing out all the newest marks of his industry with the serenity of an artist that knows his handiwork is good. A watering hole for the cows, freshly dug; a row of hedge knocked down; a section of pasture newly cleared. Philip and I walked beside him hand in hand as he strode over the grassy hilltops, tranquil king of his domain, talking all the while of this land he loved so fervently and which had been loved before him by those long gone.

After lunch we set out in the Explorers, Philip’s brothers and his father and grandfather, bouncing over the rutted lanes to the very loveliest part of the farm: the bottomlands. There was a fallen tree about the eastern fringe that must needs be split into firewood: a thinly-veiled ruse for male companionship in manly labor which I now know characterizes this clan of industrious souls. It was just that time in the afternoon when the waning autumn light was throwing out its last glittering standards of the day, spears and arrows of radiance amid the long, spare shadows of nearly-leafless trees. The remaining bits of brightness among the branches, tatters and shreds of a late finery, glowed as if the light had consumed them and granted in the act the real identity of their color.

the bottomlands in autumn sunlight

As the men fell to work, splitting and hauling with many a cheerful observation on the task, I sat by on a log, needlework in hand, chatting with the lovely young woman I was trying not to let myself think would be my sister-in-law. The sun went down before our eyes in a glory of rose and gold and a train of apricot cloud that reached far over our heads and away to the east. It was the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen, and I never set foot on the bottoms without the memory of it. But the loveliest part of it—the beauty behind the beauty—was the setting and the significance. These people all gathered for love: three generations working together for love and their ladies sitting by for love and the look in Philip’s eyes as he glanced up at me from time to time. Such burdens of joy can scarce be borne by our frail human frame and such moments are as eternal as eternity itself. What timelessness towards which their fleeting instants point and their golden standards raise!

When the trees were dark against the horizon and the dusk took on a chill, we all loaded into the trucks and headed back. How lovely to come upon that little clapboard house by the road, all cheerfulness of chrysanthemums and tidy shrubs without, all the gladness of warmth and light and good food within. It was no surprise to find dinner on the table, crowned with the legendary holiday delight of Philip’s grandmother’s teacakes. Men may laud the immortal savor of a good mess of greens and women may perfect to a high art the delicate layerings of a true angel biscuit. But give me Philip’s grandmother’s teacakes any day for real Southern comfort food. As I sat there at the table among these people I never dreamed I’d even know a year previous, it suddenly dawned on me with a quiet, confident joy that these would be my family. That this would be my life—a life for which I had been prepared for all my life at the side of this man for whom I had prayed for as long as I could remember. The thought took my breath and I blinked at the happy tears in my eyes.

“Father,” was my silent thanksgiving, “I couldn’t have asked for this.”

I wouldn’t have dared had I dreamed enough to ask it.

Quick as a flash a sweet response met my rejoicing, a bit of Browning that had lain in hopeful repose for so many years:

“God’s gifts put man’s best dreams to shame.”

It was the last big family Thanksgiving on the farm, and thanks be to God, not a one of us suspected it. By the next year Granddaddy was gone: Philip’s aunt had sung Poor Wayfarin’ Stanger for him one last time at a standing-room-only funeral and Philip’s grandmother had moved back permanently to the little house in town, the twinkle in her eye making a brave show for the sake of those she loved but the light behind it gone out this side of heaven. By the next June she had followed her husband of sixty years on his long journey—gladly, as I can only believe.

A few Thanksgivings ago we drove over the farm to the little white house, affectionately known as ‘Old Granny’s’ after Philip’s grandfather’s mother. While the marks of renovation indicating a cousin’s imminent occupation made me glad that it would no longer stand empty, the absence of those bright spirits that had illumined it once and made it a place of happy pilgrimage for a close-knit family brought an overwhelming sadness—curiously, though not unequally, yoked with joy. I looked at the desolate flower beds with their few straggling survivors and saw a bright array of mums that will be there forever. We stepped up on the porch and my mind echoed with the laughter of a day that will never grow old. We walked around to the little well house at the back with its sagging roof and the yard was suddenly populated with well-fed cats and their kittens, one orange tabby of their number which made my heart leap in my throat.

“Nothing can be as it has been,” it has been well said. But the fact that it has been—ah, such treasures are safe forever, uncorrupted by moth or rust.

Philip made the comment the other day that our typical expressions of thanksgiving tend to be immediate—Thank You, God, for this new job, this return of health, this gorgeous day—while the gratefulness illustrated in the Bible points to an even more comprehensive outlook. Not that the former is without merit—certainly not—but it’s really only the beginning stages, primary grades in the school of thanks. Throughout the Psalms we find God’s people praising Him for things that happened before they were born, in addition to deliverance promised in the future. Over and over again God’s past mercies are recounted, His long-ago victories lauded. The songs and stories were written down, not just for the immediate satisfaction of the writer but for ‘children yet to be born’—for us.

Looking back over this little flash in the pan I call my own history, I am overwhelmed with the legacy I see stretching in all directions. It’s worth wondering if the present blessings we all enjoy are largely owning to the faithfulness and the prayers of great-great grandmothers and grandfathers. I am certain of it. And though I should be celebrating it every day that I am alive, this Thanksgiving I am especially keen to the heritage of godliness that has gone into the framing of my own story and the birthright which I have been entrusted.

Both from my blessed ancestry and the one I was privileged to marry into.

LORD, you alone are my portion and my cup;
you make my lot secure.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
surely I have a delightful inheritance. ~Psalm 16

Thank You, Lord. I don’t know what else to say.

the creek

A Book’s Beauty

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

It’s easy to forget—or perhaps never fully realize in the first place—just what a treasure we hold in our hands in the form of a book.

Household Words, published by Charles Dickens

In times not too far past, books were solely the possession of the wealthy. As recently as the publication dates of many of my favorite nineteenth century novels, books were serialized in magazine format so as to be affordable to the common people. In some cases, whole villages would go in to purchase one copy for the local pub, from which a designated reader would enthrall the listeners in weekly installments. Charles Dickens was certainly a pioneer of such journals, and it was a profitable medium by which to introduce writers and their words to the middle classes. His now legendary publication Household Words was where equally legendary works like Cranford and The Song of the Western Men first saw the light of day. (Though I have heard tales of what a tyrant he could be when it came to word count—apparently that is why Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South ends so abruptly, as he basically told her to ‘wrap it up’.)

The history of books as we know them and the effects of industrialization upon their original craftsmanship is a fascinating one, and at times as fraught with peril and heroism as the best legends. Not only did the monks of the early Middle Ages preserve the written words in their keeping from barbarian invasions—often in the face of unimaginable violence—they established the criteria of true artisan standards in the bindings of the books themselves. From clumsy wooden boards encasing animal skin parchments, they progressed the work of bookbinding to a high art, to include elaborate tooled leather covers (sometimes studded with jewels) and meticulously-penned pages characterized by gilded illuminations and flourishing script. These books were so valuable—as irreplaceable as the lifetime spent crafting them—that they were secured with chains and heavy gold clasps (themselves often engraved with exquisite designs) within the monastery library. (I have to wonder at which modern developments they would be more amazed: the mass-production standards of industrial binderies or the cavalier treatment of library books!)

"Lucy! Lucy! What's that book? Who's been taking a book out of the shelf and leaving it about to spoil?" "It's only the library book that Cecil's been reading." "But pick it up, and don't stand idling there like a flamingo." ~ A Room With a View, E. M. Forster

The amazing thing is that not that much really changed in the binding of books from the monks’ early advances until the mechanization provided by the Industrial Revolution. The introduction of paper-making from the Far East in the tenth century opened new vistas of possibility and established the “signature”—or large sheets folded and cut to create smaller folios of standard page sizes—as the basic component of a book’s structure, a basic process that endures to this day. And under the stimulus of the Gutenberg press in the mid-1400’s, the creation of text leapt from hand-written pages or wooden block impressions, to the endless variety and availability of movable type. Book-making became the property of printers or the life trade of binders. And the concept of a ‘home library’ was born.

...A thousand minds all done up neatly in cardboard cases; beautiful minds, courageous minds, strong minds, wise minds, all sorts of conditions. ~Elizabeth Goudge, A City of Bells

Though it would still take several centuries to streamline the craft sufficiently to make books affordable beyond the confines of the wealthy, book-making preserved certain careful requisites over the years. The signatures were pierced along the spine edge and sewn together with fine linen thread, attached to cords in much the same way as the medieval bindings. In later interpretations, these were glued to a strip of tarlatan or English mull which was then glued to the boards while the cords were woven into the boards themselves for superior durability. This mull is the ‘webbing’ that is often visible in the cracked hinges of old books—a dignified, if ‘natty’ mark of good breeding on the part of the book itself. If you look inside the front and back covers of an old book, or a well-made new one, you can see the ghost of the mull beneath the endpapers. The spine itself was never glued to the binding—this is a modern contrivance. Instead, the book was built around a hollow back, through which the surfaces of the cords were visible. This is where we get the tradition of decorated panels between raised bands in spines—they are merely ‘faux cords’, built up to resemble the originals.

The replacement of the leather cords with cotton tape in the bindings, and the 1820’s innovation of starch-filled cloth coverings, both contributed to the leveling of the field—it’s interesting to consider how little such changes may have had to do with book-makers’ benevolence and how much with seemingly unrelated political and social events. At any rate, cotton and linen became an affordable choice for the middle classes, and the book industry grew with the demand.

The Industrial Revolution flung wide the doors and made books the possession of the masses. A triumph for literacy, but, unfortunately, a travesty for the art of the book itself. Literally thrown together by machines at a dizzying rate of speed, all the old loving, careful craftsmanship and most of the fine materials gave way to mass-production and popular prices.

There were some, even at that time, that thought the cost too high—the loss of an artisan skill and a market potentially flooded with twaddle. With astounding foresight and knowledge of the dangers of full mechanization of society, they championed a grassroots movement devoted, among other things, to the renewal of integrity in the book trade by way of small, private presses.

The man at the helm was one William Morris. And the movement was none other than Arts and Crafts…

Kelmscott Press, founded by William Morris in 1891

to  be continued in Part Two…

Teacups and Paintbrushes

Monday, February 8th, 2010

Afternoon Tea by Alexander M. Rossi

January 12, 2008

Last week my sister-in-law had two of my friends and me for lunch. It had been arranged before Christmas, a flurry of emails having saved and secured the date, but as I set out on that dour January morning, it seemed to me that the timing of our little gathering was exquisitely providential. My mood was as heavy as the dark clouds piling in from the west; tears seemed even more imminent than raindrops and the headache that had been brewing with the approaching weather front was raging so violently I could hardly see straight. I pulled into her driveway with something like a sigh of relief and hauled myself out of the car, grateful only that I hadn’t gotten a speeding ticket on my way there as I had two days previously en route to meet two other friends for lunch…

Edie still had her Christmas wreath on the door—fresh and yet fragrant it was too lovely to take down. I gazed at it rather mournfully, luxuriating a bit in my post-holiday blues. But before I had a chance to knock the door swung open, and there stood Edie, smiling in her radiantly gentle way, and beyond her, Ashley and Debra, waiting to receive me with hugs and smiles of their own. Is there any medicine on earth so potent as the embrace of a friend?

I forgot my headache. I dismissed my Janu-weary mood, for what place had it in this little sanctuary of beauty and warmth? The 1920’s bungalow was aglow with candlelight, and soft French music lilted through the rooms. A collective gasp went up at the sight of our table, for a more daintily feminine array cannot be imagined. There were place cards (with appropriately deco script), and the damask cloth was laid with every possible accouterment for a ladies’ tea: antique china, vintage silver, a tiered cake plate boasting everything from homemade scones to macaroons and melt-in-your-mouth truffles. On the sideboard stood enticing decanters of chilled lemonade, with crystal goblets at the ready. And everywhere I cast my eye, it seemed, were sweet little bottles and vases of pink and white spray roses. Pretty as a Valentine; proper as an English tea room.

Edie brought out the soup course while I poured the tea, and then we fell to the feast of fellowship with as much relish as that with which we polished off the roasted red pepper soup, and the mushroom and pine nut quiche that followed. Our conversation took a delightfully meandering course, as it only can in the hands of like-minded ladies. We discussed everything from organic gardening to vacuum cleaners, touching on politics, homeschooling and needlepoint, each in their turn.

But over all our talk, it seemed, a shining mantle was cast, a high vision of beauty’s worth that infused every subject with a strange sort of lowly nobility. Time and again we came back to one of the tenets of our homemaker’s hearts: the value and validity of loveliness. The power of beauty, in its simplest and purest sense, to speak audibly of the presence of Jesus Christ in our lives. Beauty is of Him, from Him, for Him. Beauty has a language that transcends even the finest words, that soars above our sweetest experiences in this life and whispers to our souls of what heaven will be.

Debra and Ashley are painters, artists in both life and craft. It has been beautiful for me to watch the former inspire and instruct the latter, pouring herself out, as it were, to the enrichment of a friend’s creative world. As a homeschooling mother of three, Debra could easily justify the forestallment of her own artistic desires. But instead, she’s set an example for the three of us childless women not to deny the significance of our own unique and God-given talents, even in the whirl of a houseful of teenagers. Creativity is a hidden spring, feeding the deep wells of our personalities. And when that spring is tended, unclogged and running true, cups of cold water in His name abound. We give of ourselves, because there is something there to give.

Ashley has approached the discipline of oils with courage and joy (almost she makes me want to paint…not quite. I’m not that brave!). I love to go into her house and see a new work in progress lying on the dining room table, or to catch that light that comes into her eyes when she’s describing some technique that Debra’s entrusted to her. Ashley doesn’t want to have her works in the Met, or even make a living off her paintbrush. She wants beautiful things of her own making on the walls of her home; she wants to give gifts that are indeed a portion of herself. When one considers that her whole life is a gift, that being around her is one of the most energizing occupations I can think of, it appears that the hours spent mixing paints and poring over a canvas are a perfectly natural and even necessary replenishment for her.

Into the midst of all our high talk that afternoon, Ashley slipped an analogy she’d heard in a sermon that caught my fancy in a compelling way. She gave us a picture of our callings: Some of us are tiny watercolor brushes, with only a few strands, intended for the most delicate of detail work. And the range goes all the way up to those big industrial paint rollers that can cover a whole wall in minutes. If you asked a watercolor brush to coat the side of a building it would be a disaster that ended in despair. And a paint roller would wreak havoc upon a little violet in a cut glass vase. Is the paint roller more important, more valid, because it covers a greater area with speed and efficiency? Is a Winsor & Newton more extraordinary merely because it is able to capture the rare beauties of life that might otherwise have been trodden underfoot? We all know the answer—in our heads. Both have their place and their job to do. And it’s a job that is certainly never going to get done by looking around at the other brushes nearby and comparing oneself to their bristle size and handle length. Or their subject matter, for that. And just as an artist will rifle through many brushes in the creation of one painting, we will doubtless find that the Master Painter will bring varying sizes of implements to bear upon the living landscapes we’re all creating, day in and day out.

And, if you happen to be a watercolor brush, don’t be mistaken in thinking that you cannot have a far-reaching impact in this world for beauty and truth. In a recent (and umpteenth!) viewing of the movie Miss Potter, I was struck by something she said regarding her own art: “I’m not very good at landscapes,” with a somewhat regretful glance over a sweep of Lake District loveliness. But Beatrix Potter was good at animals. And charming little stories that revealed their dignity to untold numbers of children the world over. She did not set out to write the best-selling children’s books of all time, or to almost single-handedly save the Lake District. She was just brave enough to be good at what she was good at. And there’s not a one of us alive who should not be grateful to her for it.

In like manner, Edie was merely living in her gifts that day. Hospitality, gentleness and grace; the touch of an artist upon her table and the rooms of her home. She gave of herself in that little luncheon for four, and created an environment for edification to flourish. It took time and great care, and a painterly attention to detail. (And if she wasn’t the immaculately tidy housekeeper I know her to be, I’d say she was still washing dishes!) She refreshed us from a source both deep and true, and I feel safe in assuming that she was refreshed in the process. This is beauty’s seal and signature: a mutual joy and a glory to God.

Renée Zellweger as "Miss Potter", Phoenix Pictures, 2006

originally published on YLCF

Face Down

Monday, February 1st, 2010

Ezra, Gustave Dore'

Ezra, Gustave Dore'

And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.

Nehemiah 8:6

I was a Christian, and I was a dancer. A ballerina, as I liked to avow with all the solemnity of seventeen. Studying classical ballet three and four days out of the week, showing up early to stretch before class, wrestling against all the opposing forces of aching muscles and tight tendons to add a fraction of a degree to my arabesque or half an inch of height to my grande jete’.  I loved it, and I worked hard, both of which I owe almost exclusively to the much greater fact of a superlatively excellent teacher. She drew me out of the back corner of regional ballet school indifference and she scraped grimly away at an acquired layer of sloppiness and mimicking conformity, down to the very bones of my so-called technique. We spent untold class time spread out on the floor with anatomy books and I was made to perform all manner of ridiculous maneuvers in order to find and feel the muscles we were talking about. I danced for months without any shoes at all, and marched across the floor, en pointe, holding chairs over my head. She would call for sixty-four changement at a time and then call for them again, and drill me on the names of the famed “Eight Positions ” as I assumed them in rapid succession.

In short, she taught me how to dance.  She set something free within me; something longing for expression, but something equally desirous–even dependent upon–the limitations of form and structure that make classical ballet the art form that it is. I loved it more than ever; the more that was required of me–the more I experienced the essential freedom of the form–the more lovely it became. The restlessness and joy and angst and elation of youth found voice and wing in that simple studio, all alone, under the eye of a fiercely loving taskmaster. And I was happy. And I read in the Bible about ‘doing all things as unto the Lord’, and I was happier still.

But I had no idea what it meant, that majestic little verse and the worlds of possibility it suggested. I had never gotten my mind and heart around the concept of art as worship.

Never, that is, until the day we began working on our piece  for the recital. There were three of us at that first rehearsal: my sister and another friend and myself. We were stretching out, whispering and giggling, and speculating inwardly, if not outwardly, about the diaphanous costumes the occasion would doubtless require. (It didn’t, by the way–plain white tunics and single silk flowers softening harsh little buns turned out to be the order of the day. And nothing could have been more perfect or appropriate to accompany Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze, though not-too-distant memories of Nutcracker performances and pink net made it hard for me to see it that way at first! ;) ) We were talking–but suddenly our voices dropped and we looked around us a little awkwardly. Where was our teacher? She had been there a moment before, watching us stretch or cuing up the CD player. We hadn’t even noticed when she’d left, and it was odd that she’d disappear so soon upon the start of the rehearsal, being the stickler for time that she was.

I looked around the open studio, beyond the marley floor which delineated our classroom, past the piano and chairs and shelves of music. And I saw her–in a heap in a back, dark corner of the studio. She was on her knees and her face was to the ground. And she was praying.

At first I was frightened–had something terrible happened, or had she just learned of some disaster that had catapulted her into such a desperate, un-self-conscious attitude of prayer?

But as the mists of my dullness gradually cleared, the truth broke with a light that pierces to this day: she was praying for inspiration, for the choreography and for the execution of it. She was entreating the favor of God upon this endeavor and imploring His ability to procure it. She had the spiritual vision to see that this was not just a workshop recital for families and friends at a little performing arts school–it was a chance to honor the God of the universe. To love God with the heart, soul, mind and strength. To create something beautiful out of love for Him and to lift it up as an offering of praise.

That moment changed everything for me, in the way that small, seemingly trifling moments often do. All my loves–writing, music, dancing, homemaking, gardening–have since been charged with the influence of it. And not only by the ‘glory’ side of the equation–by the appeal, as well, if not more so.  I have in that memory of my beloved and respected teacher, face down before the God she adored, an image of the creative process that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Creativity is a giving, an offering to others and a glory to the Creator-God. But it is also a receiving. And the courage to create and not valuate our offering by the market standards of the world is, I believe, a gift in itself, and one to be sought most earnestly by the likes of such frail co-creators as we humans prove ourselves to be.

I used to love to tell my ballet students and piano students what we all probably know and already admire about Bach, namely, that he ever signed his scores and compositions with the letters S.D.G. at the end: Soli Deo Gloria. But of equal insight to me is the way that he opened them: J.J. Jesu Juva.

Jesus, help.

Jesus, help me to make something beautiful for You. In this poem. In this bit of earth. In this story. In this cake or loaf of bread or painting or song. Not only can I not do it truly, essentially, without You. I can’t do it for You without You.

The very acknowledgment is an act of worship, and I see the humility of the ‘great ones’ in this practice. Madeleine L’Engle (one of my mentors!!) underscores that writing–or any art form–is an act of faith. Not a blind fumbling in the dark but a reaching towards what we know is there. She loved to image artists as midwives, assisting in the birth of some bright gleam from heaven upon our world. I smile at the thought of C.S. Lewis by his study fire, musing patiently over the mysteries of God to the good of us all. And I read, with, O, what joy, of Sheldon Vanauken praying “daily, almost hourly, that God would speak through [his] two typing fingers” as he fulfilled his vocation to write A Severe Mercy.

Jan Karon speaks of it. The thoughtful and talented folks over at The Rabbit Room are always writing about it. It’s a beautiful thing, this holy desperation, and liberating in the extreme. God is not going to magically make me write like Elizabeth Goudge just because I ask Him to. ;) But He is going to enable me to write from the burden of love He has laid upon me, to the end that He desires–which is more desirable than all to me. And the desire and the desiring draw me irresistibly into the heart of Love itself.

It’s one of the lovely paradoxes of this pilgrims’ way: we pour out our hearts in worship and find them filled in the very act. We stumble under our weakness, our grasping at words and colors and notes, and just when we think we’ve fallen we find the grip of a mighty embrace lifting us with wings like eagles’. We imagine we know the end of our art–where our ambitions lie–and we make our plans accordingly, only to discover we’re being propelled merrily along in some kind of crazy empowered helplessness towards a dream we’d likely have laughed at in our saner moments.

I found myself toward the end of last year under a big writing deadline, the enormity of which I had no idea until I had assumed it. To say that I spent most of November with my head down upon my desk asking God for help would not be too far off the mark. (I wish I could say that I spent as much time thanking Him for it when it came…) I have never felt so out of my league and over my head. And, as I told Philip, the joy of it was an almost incandescent thing. I wished that I could always live with such intensity, such dependence upon God and awareness of His help. Exhausting as it was, it was one of the shining seasons of my life.

It was a glimpse, I think, small but lucid, of the great antiphonal exchange of prayers and praises, giving  and receiving, with which art greets worship and worship quickens art. A snatch of the music of the spheres.

A hint of what it’s going to mean to love God face to face. I think there’s only one thing I’m going to be able to do then:

…And they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.

Revelation 7:11, 12

Paradise, from Dante, Gustave Dore'

Paradise, from Dante, Gustave Dore'

Christmas Hath Made an End

Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

Twelfth Night, 2007

Twelfth Night, 2007

January 6, 2007

Last night was a chapter out of fairyland; a sojourn into a vanished realm that exists only in stories and songs—and in the very lively imagination of crazy people like Philip and me. ;) I’m sitting here in my den this January afternoon with a pot of fragrant Winter Garden tea and an even more fragrant clementine, my Advent wreath lighted for the last time against the deepening sunset outside and a Mozart quintet on the record player, trying to convince myself that this sweet Christmas holiday was more than a dream. And no part of it seemed more dream-like than the Twelfth Night Revel we held here last night…

I don’t think I’ve ever been so blue about the holidays drawing to close as I was this year. Every moment was so precious that I literally watched them pass with a sigh and even a few tears. And when Philip went back to work on Tuesday and I was confronted with a quiet house and a mountain of laundry and a good-sized hill of dead greenery, it was all I could not to crawl back in bed and pull the covers over my head. It’s the price I pay for all my Christmas sentiment, I am well aware, and worth all its sweet pain. But something had to be done. And to my melancholy mind there appeared but one option: we had to throw a party.

The Twelfth Night Cake

The Twelfth Night Cake

So we invited our friends to a Twelfth Night Revel. It’s something we’ve wanted to do for ages, but with it falling on Friday this year—coupled with the desperate need I had for festivity—it seemed the very moment in time for such a frolic. So Philip got the bonfire ready and put out the chairs in a wide arc around it, and I decorated our big copper lanterns with wired-on greenery and doled out food assignments with each RSVP. I set up tables for the pots of chili and the platters of cornbread and the bowls of salad that were coming and spread them with branches of pine and big, ferny sprigs of cedar, interjected by tall glass hurricanes with white tapers. The front hall was cleared for dancing, and the chandelier was woven with a wreath of ivy and strung with bright crepe paper, red and green, that extended in winding ribbons to the four corners of the room. I made an enormous pan of Mexican cornbread and a pot of my favorite ‘White Christmas chili’ and took the remaining cookies I had made out of the freezer.

And all through the preparations the day of the party I listened to the thunder rumble and watched the rain falling outside—a veritable monsoon—and fielded phone calls from anxious friends.

“Are we still on for tonight?”
“Who would have thought we’d have such weather in January?”
“Well, we could always eat in the house…”

I laughed and soothed and projected the weather as best I could. But not, I confess, with an untroubled heart. It just seemed like our whole beautiful holiday would end on a flat note if our bonfire was rained out. Not to mention the fact that I had no back-up plan for seating the hungry hordes that would soon be descending upon us. And so I prayed roughly a dozen or so of those desperate little pleading requests: “Oh, Lord! I know that there are a million-and-one other things tremendously more important in the scheme of the world than whether it rains on our party or not—but oh, please, please let it clear up!”

Twelfth Night, 2008

Twelfth Night, 2008

There was nothing else to be done but continue with the preparations and hope for the best. The forecast was quite dour; the heavy-laden clouds that kept rolling in from the west were too disheartening to look at. It poured on Philip all the way home from the office. But at five-thirty a miracle occurred. I don’t hesitate in the least to call it a miracle, albeit a small one, for in it I heard the Lord say ‘I love you’ just as clearly as if it had been an audible voice. (And is it not those little personal miracles that show us—perhaps best of all—His great and lovely tenderness?) A glint of gold appeared in the west, piercing the leaden mantle with arrows of light. In a matter of moments the whole sky was suffused with a glory of saffron and apricot, crowning the tops of the trees in splendor and brimming the pasture below with a light-filled mist. I dropped my dishcloth and stood out the window, perfectly transfixed. My heart was filled with praise, for not only had God allowed the weather to clear up, He had done it in the most beautiful way imaginable. Every drop on every branch was a living gem, sparkling and flashing as if for joy. Birdsongs sweetened the already vernal air and Philip and I wandered about in the yard, laughing at how gorgeous it suddenly all was. I thought of the words to a song we’ve sung much this Christmas, All hayle to the days:

December is seene appareled in greene, and January fresh as May
Comes dancing along with a cup and a song to drive the cold winter away.

As twilight fell the world only became more glamorous: the mist rolled up along the terraces in the pasture and crept over the lawn, and stars winked out in the velvet overhead.

“I feel like we’re in Merry Olde England!” I cried to Philip.
“Or Ireland!” he supplied.
“Or Scotland!” I exulted.

The Cake, 2008

The Cake, 2008

It was certainly all magical enough, and only more so when all our friends began arriving with shouts of ‘Happy New Year!’ and the bonfire began leaping heavenward and the children started running to and fro in the darkness, heaping my withered holly branches and dried pine garlands onto the blaze. When we gathered for the blessing, I couldn’t help subjecting our guests to a brief—and, to me, at least—an undeniably fitting little reading:

Christmas hath made an end,
Well-a-day! well-a-day!
Which was my dearest friend,
More is the pity!
For with an heavy heart
Must I from thee depart,
To follow plow and cart
All the year after!

It grieves me to the heart,
Well-a-day! well-a-day!
From my friend to depart,
More is the pity!
Christmas, I fear ’tis thee
That thus forsaketh me:
Yet for one hour, I see,
Will I be merry.

Singing to one who couldn't make it, 2008

Singing to one who couldn't make it, 2008

There certainly was great merry-making around the fire that night. Sparklers for the children and bottle rockets and Roman candles for the boys and men. Old English games like ‘Christmas Candle’ and ‘Snapdragon’ that Philip and I dug out of an old book. Mirth and good cheer as Christmas trees were added to the blaze sending the flames a good forty feet into the air. After seconds and thirds of dinner had been dispensed with, my friend Rachel and I gathered all of the little girls for a special procession of the wassail and the Twelfth Night cake—which had been duly prepared with the traditional bean, pea and clove planted somewhere in its spiced depths, the discovery of which would determine the king, queen and knave, respectively, for the evening. We rehearsed our wassailing song quietly in the shadows of the great walnut tree and lit green sparklers on the cake before making our solemn way across the backyard down to the fire.

Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green!
And here we come a-wand’ring so fair to be seen!
Love and joy come to you and to you your wassail too,
And God bless you and send you a happy new year!
And God send you a happy new year!

The cake was presented amid a spontaneous burst of applause and was duly sliced and distributed by the girls to the eager guests, each desirous of their status in the hierarchy of the night. My mother’s dear friend, Wendy, was the knave, I plucked the pea from my piece of cake with an air of queenly triumph, and the king obviously swallowed his bean unnoticed and will henceforth go uncrowned. (We’ll just say it was Philip…)

There were Twelfth Night carols and Epiphany songs after that, and the inevitable Twelve Days of Christmas. And we closed on the rousing note of The Gloucestershire Wassail, each time I thought we were done another guest calling out another verse:

“The butler verse!”
“The maid verse!”
“Verse one, again!”

The Bonfire, 2008

The Bonfire, 2008

When all but a set’s worth (and those acquainted with Scottish or English country dancing will know what that implies) had taken their leave with many a hopeful word for ‘next year’, Philip and his brother polished off the bottle rockets while my sister-in-law and I looked on from a safe distance and savored the fun we’d already had and the enchantments abroad in earth and sky. A clear golden moon had risen early upon our festivities, out of a vaporous fog that cloaked the trees and made its light a mysterious thing. There was the closeness of the dew and the bewitchery of woodsmoke in the air. We looked up through the moonlit trees overhead and commented on how the drops that still clung to their bare limbs looked like stars all tangled in the branches. But only fitting on a night so fraught with faeirie…

Coffee and wassail and cookies in the house after that for the hearty and hale that had stayed for the dancing. Postie’s Jig and Corn Rigs and Frost and Snow were executed with commendable good spirit, despite—or, perhaps, because of—the fact that for the first time ever we had more gentlemen than ladies and a couple of un-named guys had to cross the set and dance as girls! The candles wavered in their sconces as we romped by and the crepe paper fluttered overhead. And when we were all too tired to dance anymore, we flopped on the floor, the stairs, the remaining seats, and smiled sleepily at one another.

But despite my weariness, when we said goodbye and closed the door for the last time, I turned to Philip with a look of elation. My Christmas was complete; my holiday wrapped up like a present from God in one last lovely memory. We had said a worthy farewell to the dearest season of the year, toasted its memory with our laughter and songs.

And it’s only forty-six more weeks till I can start decking my halls again!

Looking forward to next year, 2010

Looking forward to next year, 2010

originally published at YLCF, January 2007

and here’s one last little song for good measure… ;)

The King

Happy 12th Night, Dear Ones!

Fellow Sojourners

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

r1

(originally published 2005 in Inkblots magazine)

It was five years ago this October that I casually tossed my new Victoria magazine on the coffee table and then snatched it back up again.  Invite Your Book Club to Tea proclaimed luxurious scrolls above a picture of a tastefully laid table by the fire and promises of worthy recipes within. I stared for a moment, an idea working in my mind.  It was just what I needed, what my soul was craving.  Only just emerging from the cocoon of the newly married, with my sister in New York and my two best friends on opposite sides of the globe, I had a distinct need for feminine companionship. Without further delay I called up three kindred spirits and asked them if they’d like to start a book club.

Two weeks later we were eating soup at my kitchen table and discussing Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey.  Cherishing a personal penchant for almost any book with heroines in long skirts however drab (skirts, that is), I was surprised and yet stimulated to hear my friends take issue with Bronte’s admittedly mousy leading lady.  “I liked it,” I managed to submit amid the lively repartee, recalling gentle scenes of English country life and pity for Agnes’ un-chosen lot.  But I was overridden.  In the annals of our book club, Agnes Grey went down as a book that we decidedly did not like.

The next October found us with eight members and a name: The Ladies’ Literary Society, or LLS.  Several months previous a gem of an Elizabeth Goudge, Pilgrim’s Inn, had prompted such an outpouring of sympathetic delight that one of the members had shared her thoughts with the rest by way of a small essay and accompanying sketch.  And thus the Notes were born.  Beyond minutes, these little handcrafted leaflets were to describe in glowing terms the precious details that made each meeting a day that we never wanted to forget—from depictions of table settings and flowers, to a mouth-watering portrayal of dainties and morsels the hostess had provided, as well as a never-to-be omitted review of the book.

“They’re for posterity,” Jenijoy insisted with a gleam of laughter in her eyes.  “Someday our Notes will find their way into a museum, and when someone wants to write a book about us they’ll be unearthed with great rejoicing.”

“Well, they’re alright,” proclaimed one of our mothers upon perusing my flowery reminiscences of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, “if you’re living in the nineteenth century.”  But the effect was intentional.  Apart from an occasional foray into the WWII era, our choices have always seemed to rest heavily upon books with two striking features: they are old, and they are English.

We celebrated our first anniversary in 2001 with a golden picnic in a friend’s pasture.  With just the right touch of chill in the air to make sweaters welcome and a dazzling blue sky overhead we spread our repast upon a well-worn quilt: roast chicken flanked with chrysanthemums and bundles of herbs served from beneath a silver venison dome, hot peanut soup and pumpkin muffins, with baked apples in little glass jars and lashings of fresh whipped cream for dessert.  Cut glass plates and antique flatware were the order of the day and linen napkins were spread daintily across tweed-clad knees.  At the four corners of the blanket our hostess had laid bouquets of autumn flowers, wild asters and goldenrod and stalks of wheat.

“Oh, how I needed this,” Laura sighed, tucking a wayward brown curl behind her ear.

Louise poised her teacup meditatively.  “We all did.”

It was the first truly beautiful thing we had known in a post-September 11th world and the loveliness of the autumn day and the comfort of friendship had worked their charms upon each of us, loosening the iron bands of anxiety about our minds and whispering that life was still exquisite and that God was still in his heaven.

That afternoon I realized as never before that the purpose of our dear Society transcended the common love of books.  It was a knitting of hearts, a safe haven for ideals in a world more uncertain than we had once thought.  Our mutual passion for good books had brought us together and sealed our friendships, but it was our shared faith and our sisterhood in Christ that made the time we spent in each other’s company an eternal treasure.  We have since wept together over one’s bereavement; we’ve spontaneously prayed for one another in moments of trial and perplexity; we’ve laughed till our sides ached and dished out all manner of unsolicited advice.  And ignoring the clock as best we can on the third Thursday of each month we put away gallons of hot tea—an essential ingredient for invigorating talk—and wax eloquent on the glories of Tennyson or the absurdities of P.G. Wodehouse.

In the spring we become a quasi-garden club, discussing the growing of foxgloves or the propagation of shrubs from cuttings with as much solemnity as we would the nuances of a Jane Austen novel.  Invariably there is a collection of newly-potted plants by the hostess’ door in token of promises made at the previous meeting.  And the sprays of wild ferns or masses of violets that grace the table always represent offerings from one or another’s yard.  Rachel is famous for her English roses; I have a coveted flowering quince; Jenijoy is the first to procure winter honeysuckle and the earliest April irises.

But, at the very core, we are a book club.  The knowledge of my wonderful friends enjoying the very same book as me at the very same time has added a whole new dimension to the pleasures of reading.  I wonder what Amanda thought of that scene on the moors…Won’t Rebecca love that philosophical passage…I imagine Lori has some striking observations on that subplot… To me, the satisfaction of a loved book is only complete when I can share it with those that I love.  I do not believe that the adventure of reading was meant to be a wholly solitary one.

Our book club is an assembly of eight completely unique and diverse personalities sealed at the heart by mutual values.  Wives, mothers of young children, single girls.  We limit our size both for the intimacy of the discussion and the hostess’ ability to easily accommodate members present around her dinner table or by her fire.  A beautifully-tooled brown leather journal that houses the Notes and a silver-plated tea warmer circulate among hostesses; the choice of tea itself rests most definitely and unanimously upon Yorkshire Gold.   We are loose enough to require a sergeant-at-arms to keep the discussion on track, but so entrenched in common devotion that no one wants to admit that they didn’t finish the book or that they will have to miss an upcoming meeting.

In the movie Shadowlands, Anthony Hopkins as C. S. Lewis muses on an arresting comment made by one of his students: We read to find we’re not alone. I’ve known the unspeakable sweetness of discovery among the pages of my favorite books, that bright flash of illumination shed upon my deepest thoughts, both expressing and validating what I had imagined only myself to have felt.  But how much sweeter still is the happiness of making the journey itself in company of proven companions, of catching that illumination in the eyes of a friend.  The dear girls of my book club are fellow pilgrims on a Golden Road.  I feel sure that we’ll still be meeting when we’re eighty.

tea