Artists’ Life

Tuesday, July 1st, 2008

IMG_2437.JPGMy little sister and her husband are painters. They’ve dreamed of careers in art since they were children. And it’s with much more than a sisterly bias that I can say they are both extremely talented. With an enviable ardor they packed up and left everything they had ever known not six months after they were married to go and study at the legendary Art Student’s League in New York City. There they managed to get into a class taught by one of the world masters of realistic painting, a class which usually has a waiting list years long. And so, living happily and simply in a tiny apartment, working part-time jobs and prowling the Met all they can, they pursue what they love every single day. All under the banner of their indefatigable motto: Hard Work and High Spirits.

Liz and I love to thresh out the various likenesses in our passions. Between my writing and her painting we have found much to identify with in the other. Where I take my journal, she takes her sketchbook, but the motivation is the same. We long to capture and process what we see and feel, to produce a tangible bit of our own inspiration that pays homage to the originality and beauty of our God. I don’t feel that I am living fully unless I am sorting it all out in my journal; to deprive Liz of her drawing would be to take the color out of her world. And it’s all the groundwork for something greater, something beyond ourselves. Something that we can present to God as our own offering, a testament to the unquenchable, universal desire to create that He has instilled in us all. As Edith Schaeffer expounds in her jewel of a book Hidden Art, we are created in the image of a Creator. And, as such, we are created with a passion to create.

I have never had the slightest doubt that my sister would succeed as a painter. I know her—her drive, her zeal for true beauty, her precision and skill and devotion. She’s never been afraid of the work involved. She’s never retreated before the scorn of critics who were too enamored with the new and edgy to appreciate the divine, ‘old masters’ look of her paintings. But it has always taken me off guard to be reminded of her confidence in me as a writer. She was the one who listened with shining eyes to those first fanciful, overly-eloquent stories and loved the bit of my soul they revealed. And she is the one today who treats me as a fellow artist, and views my scribblings and yearnings with the same gravity as she does her own portrait work and gallery pieces.

Introducing me to someone at a party once, she said, ‘This is my sister, Lanier. She’s a writer.’ In one moment, in one small sentence, she declared her faith in me. I was so overjoyed I wanted to hug her on the spot. She had called me what I had been afraid to call myself, and it somehow made it true. I was a writer—not because I had published books or won awards, but because the unique stamp of God’s image on my personality was ‘the pen of a ready writer’. Because I wrote. She told me that night without a word: “You want to be a writer? Then the first person you have to convince is yourself.”

It was Liz who finally persuaded me to make my writing a daily part of life. A priority of the highest order, not a treat to be relished when every other possible task had been attended to; a ritual as regular and dear as my devotions and my homemaking. But it was her husband, Marshall, who first suggested ‘The Contest’. Part of the self-generated ‘Art Revolution’ that he and Liz were championing in their own lives involved a minimum of thirty minutes’ drawing per day. Focused sketching for the purpose of honing the foundation of their painting. Recognizing the natural human tendency to strive for excellence when the stakes were high, he made me a proposition the summer before they left for New York. If I would write for half-an-hour a day, he would sketch for the same. At the end of the month we would tally up our hours, and the winner would be entitled to a favor of any description from the loser.

I laughingly accepted the challenge. But at the end of the first month—during which I had written more than all the past several months put together—I was amazed. As Marshall said, “It really is surprising how prolific you can become with even a short daily commitment.” He was right. And with those faithful, daily doses, goaded onward by the spice of friendly competition, writing had become the priority that I had always wished it to be. No more dreaming of some magically uncommitted time in my life to hole up and dash out the next great novel, but real, integral writing intentionally squeezed into a full life simply because I couldn’t not do it.

We exchanged all kinds of daring banter that summer. Marshall laboriously glued back together some broken demitasse cups of mine. I toiled over a pair of dress pants tailored to his specifications. Early on in our challenge Liz reminded me of the great motto emblazoned over the door of the Art Student’s League and they became my standard: Nulla Dies Sine Linea. Not a day without a line. The prerequisite for the artist’s life.

Before they moved away, Liz and Marshall took a week-long camping trip with my husband and me in our 1962 Airstream trailer. It was a precious time made all the more dear by their impending departure—looking back it seems I savored the best moments with a lump in my throat. In the late afternoons we’d settle in our camp with the sunset gathering beyond House Mountain to the west and spilling its radiance over the temperate corner of the Shenandoah Valley we were privileged to call our own for the week.  Enveloped in a silence so perfect it seemed enchanted, we would give ourselves over to artistic pursuits. I remember typing madly in my sling back chair, a cup of tea close at hand. Liz was beside me committing her own thoughts to paper and Philip was stretched out in the trailer with Walden or a notepad of what Liz dubbed ‘life thoughts’. Marshall set up his easel facing the beloved view that greeted us each morning: the old barn, the vegetable garden bejeweled with tomatoes and peppers and tasseled with golden corn, the winding drive with the willow at the bend.

I will never forget the sweet compatibility of those hours as we strove together for expression in words and in paint. Silently minding our endeavors as darkness fell; an almost holy pause before the hilarity of the evening ensued, when sparks would fly heavenward from our campfire and laughter would ring out upon the uncanny stillness of the night.  It was a solitude of perfect unity, a joyful seclusion in the haven of true understanding. It hardly seemed possible that such harmony could exist this side of heaven.

Not long after we returned I went over Liz and Marshall’s apartment to help them pack. It was so awfully surreal to be wrapping their wedding presents and books and stashing them in boxes for a destination I couldn’t even picture. I fumbled about for words to tell them how proud I was, how much I admired their faith in their calling. But I kept tripping over how dreadfully I was going to miss them.

Don’t!” Liz warned me, catching sight of my brimming eyes.

I swallowed hard and started bundling paintings in towels and sliding them into long boxes. But there was one painting that I couldn’t package with the others. It was a small one, six by eight, of a tin-roofed barn, a garden tossing with corn, a bend in the road and mountains beyond. I was still holding it rather hesitantly when Marshall came in.

He grinned. “That’s one of Beetle’s favorites.”

‘Beetle’ is his term of utmost affection for my sister, and I remembered plainly how she had appropriated that painting when it was hardly dry, mounted on an easel in the Shenandoah Valley.

“You still owe me one—for August, you know.” I held the painting a little closer. “Call it even?”

Marshall shrugged and looked at Liz. “It’s up to Beetle.”

Liz stopped piling clothes in a box and frowned slightly. “Permanent loan,” she decreed. “Until he can replace it with another one.”

I was happy and carried my little painting home in triumph. I propped it on the bookshelf, where I’d see it more often than any place else in the house.

That was almost five years ago, now, and Liz and Marshall each have distinguished themselves with a résumé of awards and scholarships and residencies as long as their respective arms, not to mention a body of work literally heartbreaking in its beauty and humanity. But their challenge rings just as true as ever: the bone and marrow of the artists’ life is lines. Words, notes, brushstrokes. One after another.

Every single day.

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Lena Mae’s books

Thursday, October 11th, 2007

lena mae.jpgMy husband adores old books every bit as much as I do. Someday, I fear, the very rafters of our house will bulge with loved acquisitions. But even he looked askance at some of the derelict volumes I carted home from the dispersal of my grandmother’s house. Ex-libraries, with yellowed pages soft from use and split spines and frayed corners. Heavily-taped tomes whose hand-written titles were barely legible. Water-marked and sun-bleached. But I simply couldn’t leave them behind. Passing them by with an armload of gorgeous, well-kept, stately old books I felt a pang of guilt, and would invariably stop and add a few more to my already teetering pile.

“We’re not running a half-way house for wayward books,” he reminded me with a grin. I nodded agreement. But these were no ordinary cast-offs. All of the flyleaves were inscribed with the familiar scrawl of my great-grandmother, Lena Mae. Most of them bore a penciled note as well of the date (or dates) of reading, and perhaps a few page numbers of particularly esteemed passages. These were her books, her foster children, as it were. These she had rescued from rubbish heaps and library purgings and given a place of honor among the fine and beautiful ones that already filled her shelves.

Her family said of her that she believed there was never a boy or a book that was beyond help. Having lost her only son at the age of nine she was known all her life for her fierce tenderness towards the male race, pampering the boy grandchildren with a delightful shamelessness. But she was equally shameless in her defense of books. In her mind it was a mortal sin to throw away a book, right up there with dancing and playing cards on Sundays. Books that had fallen on hard times were no more to be censured than a genuine lady or gentleman of reduced means. If the message housed between the covers was still legible—and worthy to begin with—then it found safe refuge with her.

Looking over her cherished books—and I have many of them now, not only such orphans of the storm, but lovely poetry and gilt-edged novels and college textbooks—I am struck anew with the living personality of this woman I am so proud to call my great-grandmother. Though I never knew her, the legend of Lena Mae’s indomitable zeal to enhance and improve the lives around her is as vivid to me as if I had read it in one of these volumes she unknowingly left to me. And no method of improvement seemed so effective to her as the art of reading. Whether it was her marked and worn Bible, or the newest Grace Livingston Hill, or a treatise on the periods and characteristics of antique furniture, Lena Mae was seldom seen without a book close at hand.

Almost fifty years after her death my great-grandmother is remembered with fond respect in a bustling little Southern city that still bears the obvious traces of her loving industry—not the least of which is our library itself. From a humble beginning in an old house on A—– Road to a posthumous dedication of a room named in her honor in the new city library, Lena Mae was the very heartbeat of the vision to bring the pleasures of reading to the whole community. lena mae3.jpg

But she didn’t limit herself to merely such large-scale undertakings. After her girls were married and gone, she turned what was once the front bedroom of their house on Love Street into a library of her own. With beautifully-carved walnut cases lining three of the walls—themselves refugees from a fire in a neighboring drug store—and a massive bust of George Washington presiding benevolently over all she created her own little sanctuary of reading and refreshment. The aforementioned urchins ranged alongside her prized Shakespeare collection. The Poor Little Rich Girl sidled up to Ben Hur; Sir Walter Scott rubbed shoulders with Thornton Burgess. All of these were at the disposal of her many friends; and she leant them with the same grace with which she set an extra place at the table every Sunday and made room for the extra young girl that was invariably living with them. (“Come home with me,” Aunt Sara told a little classmate one day who had lost her mother to illness. “Mamma’ll let you live with us.” And she did, of course. Though not a ‘boy’ or a ‘book’, orphaned little girls had a sure claim on Lena Mae’s tender mercies.)           

In a day when few young women received a higher education, my great-grandmother left her home in S—– at the age of sixteen and entered Young Harris College in the mountains of north Georgia. Accessible at times only by ox carts which alone could traverse the winding, muddy roads, Young Harris was started by a circuit-riding Methodist preacher in the 1880’s, and was well-established as a liberal arts school when Lena Mae entered in 1904. She distinguished herself with an unquenchable passion for literature and poetry as well as a position on the renowned debate team. I love thumbing through her textbooks, coming across notes from a lecture on foreign policy or poetic structure. But most of all I love the old photographs we have of her college days, such a bright-eyed lass with high-piled hair and a twinkle in her eye every bit as disarming as Anne Shirley’s! I think I feel closest to her in these dim, time-darkened pictures. I can almost feel the flush of her optimism, her rose-tinted hopes for the future—both her own and that of children yet to be born.

Life had such joy in store for Lena Mae. An elopement with her true love which led to a marriage of devotion that lasted over sixty years. Three beautiful daughters and a home that rang with their laughter and high spirits. A community that loved her as much as her boundless heart loved it.

lena mae2.jpgBut there were devastating blows, as well, bolts from the blue: she lost her first little daughter to meningitis; years later typhoid took her beloved son and father and endangered the rest of the family when my grandmother was an infant. You can almost see a shadow cross the kind brown eyes in the photographs from this time, a slight sad droop to the ready smile. Yet even as she staggered beneath such providences she acknowledged them as the ministrations of a loving God. And not once did she turn her eyes from the needs of those around her. Her own sorrows only seemed to make her that much more aware of the hurts of her friends and neighbors. She struggled along with everyone else to make ends meet during the Depression, but her children never knew anything but safety and comfort, though a line of hoboes beat a constant track to her back door. Even after times got better, my great-grandfather would often come home from work to find that his best suit had been given away—yet again—as some poverty-stricken member of the community had died with nothing to be ‘laid out’ in.       

And, as always, after bodily needs and spiritual needs had been tended to, she ever sought the betterment of the soul by way of great literature. Her adoration of Shakespeare became a family by-word. When her children were small, she started a Shakespeare Club for the ladies of S-
—- to read and discuss his plays. I can picture them all now, in their black brocade dresses and pearls, sitting primly in the Green parlor tossing about such grandiloquent phrases as O for a Muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention! or May the worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul! in genteel Southern drawls. Lena Mae’s devotion to the immortal bard was a sacred thing, almost a family treasure—as a child, my mother was dismayed to find that ‘Uncle Will’ was not her uncle at all, not even a tenuous relation, much as the friendly reverence offered towards his memory otherwise implied.

Someday when my own children ask for something good to read I’ll pull down one of those ragged old volumes of Lena Mae’s. I’ll tell them of the great lady they belonged to, and of all of the other little children who have read and loved them before. And I’ll whisper a silent prayer that this blessed heritage will work its influence yet again on young hearts and minds.  

originally published in Inkblots Literary Magazine 

The Bee Charmer

Monday, August 8th, 2005

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            Philip and I had quite the Gene Stratton Porter experience today.  We’ve been troubled about the recent tenants that have taken up residence in our prize black walnut, namely, a swarm of honeybees.  We actually saw them swarm a few weeks ago, and were pretty frightened by the sheer numbers—literally thousands of bees filling the air with a grayish living cloud, gradually settling on the trunk and marching upwards in an amazing semblance of rank and file.  We knew that we had to get them out of the tree so that we could treat the problem that had lured them there in the first place, but as the days went by and we saw what peaceable neighbors they were, we were loathe to do anything to harm them. 

            I found a beekeeper in the Market Bulletin this morning, and called him to see if he would like to come and take our hive away.  I could tell by his voice what sort of man he was, a mild, gentlemanly old black man who knew everything worth knowing about life in general and bees in particular.  In slow, gentle tones he explained that he would do what he could to get the queen to come out, for without her the hive would not budge.  I didn’t have to ask him when he could come—“Just let me finish my coffee here, and I’ll come on out.”  

            I called Philip immediately.  “You’ve got to come home right now,” I told him.  “I couldn’t bear for you to miss this!”

            As it turned out, both he and Kevan, who had come to finish our barn job, were here.  Mr. Scott was as mellow and placid as I expected him to be, and spoke in an almost continual low sweet murmur, like the humming of the bees themselves.  He messed about with some paraphernalia in his car, drew out a white wooden hive, a bag of pine straw and an old-fashioned smoker.  I was waiting to see his beekeepers garb, but in vain.  He had filled his smoker with lit straw and mounted the ladder he had propped against the tree before I realized that he had no intention of covering himself in any way.  When I thought how scared we were of the bees when they were swarming I had to marvel.

            “Aren’t you afraid of being stung?” Kevan had to ask.

            “Oh, no,” he grinned down at us.  “These are friendly bees.  They’re such nice little Italian ones—Law, how I wish they were still swarming, or in a branch or something!  Then I could show you how easy it is—I’d just pick up the queen,” he demonstrated with a gently cupped hand, “slip her in the hive, and tap, tap, tap, they’d all file in.”

            To say that we were astonished by his methods and demeanor is putting it mildly.  He assured us that they wouldn’t sting—that the smoke would soothe them and that they only stung when they sensed fear by the vibrations of a rapidly beating heart.  I smiled to myself as I watched Mr. Scott pumping smoke right into the hole in the tree without ceasing his lecture on their habits, and thought that there wasn’t any danger of a rapidly beating heart in that quarter. 

            We began by watching from a safe distance on the ground, but an overpowering sense of curiosity combined with a longing not to miss a honeyed syllable that dropped from this learned, simple man, drew us ever nearer until we all found ourselves standing at the base of the trunk gazing up with shaded eyes.  He said that they wouldn’t sting, and for some reason, with bees swinging dizzily about our heads and tangling in our hair and landing on our clothing, we believed him. 

            “Oh, I wish she would come out!” he said, peering in through the smoke.  “I just love ‘em so much!  But she’s a young queen, young and naïve.  I may not even see her among the others.”

           He told us about the intricacies of hive life, held us fascinated with tales of the hierarchies of the bee guards and police and nurses and drones.  He enlightened us on the mysterious secrets of royal jelly, which is fed by the nurse bees to a nymph that will develop into a queen.  He plucked a larger bee from the trunk and held him out by his wings for us to see.  “This one’s a king.  You can tell because he’s larger and more filled out."

            As the swarm exiting the tree became denser he pressed his face close to the trunk to see if the queen was among them.  Strange, barely perceptible humming sounds broke from his slightly parted lips, and the bees began to assemble near where his hand lay propped on the rough bark, gradually clambering over his fingers and under his palm.  He motioned with his other hand for us to notice their peculiar behavior.  All of the little stingers were pointed up and a thousand tiny wings whirred and fanned in unison.

            “They’re telling me where the queen is—or they’re sending me a false signal,” he chuckled softly, rotating the bee covered hand with easy unconcern.  Catching my fascinated gaze, he leaned toward me, confiding, “You see, I’m a bee charmer.  Yes,” he continued, as if to himself, “a bee charmer.” 

            This was too much for the boys.  Soon Kevan’s hand was on the trunk as well, where a laborer stumbled over his fingers from time to time.

            Philip scampered up the second ladder, which Mr. Scott had placed nearby to investigate marching action farther up the tree.  Nursing the one sting he sustained, Philip craned to peer into the hole where Mr. Scott was listening with a stethoscope.

            “The more I hear about bees, the more I wonder how anyone could know much about them and not believe in God,” he said.         
            

            Mr. Scott concurred with a leisurely nod and a wide smile.

            “I mean, I guess you believe in God, being so close to the bees and all.”

            “Ohhh, yes."

            Our queen was elusive.  Even the thirty-foot ladd
er would not reach the congregation where Mr. Scott believed she was hiding, and with dwindling numbers still buzzing about the hole, he sealed it and patched it with dark brown caulk.  I was rather sorry.  I so wanted them all to go away together in his trim white box.  But Mr. Scott reassured me about the scattered hive.

            “They’ll always follow her to a new home.  And if any bees get separated from their own hive, they’ll go and find another.  But they have to knock at the door, and the guards come out, and they say, ‘Please can I join your hive?’  And if they promise to work hard, the guards will let them in.  But they’ll watch ‘em and make sure.  This is a young hive, and they’re good workers.”  I remembered the scores of bees with their little legs loaded down with ‘baskets’ of pollen we had seen.  “They’ll be alright.”

           After enjoying the yard a bit, breathing deep of the ‘oxygenated air’, laughing over Caspian’s attempts to impress, and getting acquainted with the biddies—“Ohhh, I’d just sit out here and watch ‘em all day long!”—he packed his equipment back in the car with an almost nostalgic look around.  He passed Philip his card and we both gasped.

            “Dr.—,”

            “D.R.,” he corrected.  “That just stands for drive—like drivin’ a car.”

            With that enigmatic comment he was gone. 

            And although a search engine turned up absolutely nothing on “Dr. Milton Scott”, I know exactly who we are going to call when we’re ready to set up our own hives.  How could we not now, after spending a charmed afternoon getting to know these miraculous little witnesses of God’s order and wisdom?  And who better to impart the needed lore than a real, honest-to-goodness bee charmer?

 

In Behalf of the Dinner Party

Wednesday, July 20th, 2005

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We had a dinner party Saturday night.  Both of us were shocked when we realized how long it had been since we’d had a real sit-down china-and-crystal affair, what with working on the house and family weddings and all…I was as obsessively excited about it as Virginia Woolfe’s Mrs. Dalloway…I planned the menu with excruciating care and spent all day in the kitchen.  Philip kept commenting on the smile I wore, but I was so very happy, thriving in the joy God gives me in entertaining, that I couldn’t help it.  Even when I was tired and the kitchen was all clean and the food was all in a sufficient state of readiness, I was almost giddy with the thought of my friends arriving, the ring of the doorbell, the soft glow of candlelight in the hall as they came in and the aromas from the kitchen wafting out to meet them.

All day as I worked I anticipated their pleasure, and I enjoyed my own in the making of it.  I considered how frivolous many would think it for a hostess to spend three hours making chocolat mousse a l’orange and gougeres, to linger over snippets of flowers for the centerpiece and scrub the brass lanterns that hang in the den till they shone.  There are many that would say—have even said to me, in essence—, ‘Don’t think so much about your house or your food—the only thing that’s important is that you have people into your home because Christians are supposed to show hospitality, no matter what state things are in.  Entertaining is about ministry—think about the souls of your guests.’

While I’ll not deny that there is a time and place for hospitality of the utmost simplicity, for opening your home regardless of whether you feel ‘ready’ or not, I am inclined to issue a plea on behalf of the fine art of entertaining that is swiftly receding before a tide of hamburgers on paper plates and cold pizza out of the box.

I am thinking about the souls of my guests, and my own soul too.  It gives me joy to entertain formally from time to time.  And I like to imagine that the people at my table are refreshed as well by the attention to detail that comes with a more old-fashioned manner of dining in so casual and common an age as that in which we live.  All I know is that it satisfies a deeply-felt need within me to stand back and survey a well-appointed table and to think of the vibrant conversation that must soon flow among the delicate sounds of silver upon china and the musical tinkle of a crystal stem.  Believing that God Himself is the author of beauty, and that our own individual means of creating it is both a gift from Him and a glory to Him, I cannot think that devoting a whole day to preparing and serving a meal is a waste of time.

My French friend, Delphine, taught me so much about entertaining.  I’ll never forget the dinner party she and my sister and I had at my parents’ house before any of us were married, later lovingly dubbed ‘Delphine’s Feast’ after the sacrificially beautiful repast in one of Isaak Dinesen’s stories.  Weeks before the party we sat down with her recipes and discussed the menu over cups of tea, an event in and of itself.  Then there was a rather vivacious trip to the farmer’s market the day before in which my sister was very nearly run over with a shopping cart by an unnamed member of our party, and Delphine scrutinized every carrot and potato with a critical eye.

The day of the party we all donned white aprons early in the afternoon and set to work.  Grams and ounces were carefully converted to cups and tablespoons with the little metric scale Delphine had brought.  She introduced me to the sweet pungency of Gruyere as we grated it for the choux.  Liz chopped vegetables with abandon, and Delphine supervised as pieces of veal were carefully dropped into the simmering white sauce of the blanquette de veau.  Serious deliberation was given to the table setting; plates were laid and removed and laid again for the supreme comfort of the guests.  And in the living room, a romantic table for two was set for my parents.

The boys, upon arriving, were politely banned from the kitchen while Delphine watched for the choux to puff, but when dinner was served no one could deny that it was worth the wait.  A bottle of wine that Delphine’s mother had sent from Paris for the occasion was solemnly passed, and steaming savory bowls followed.  During the cheese course I remember stirring anxiously at my end of the table, eager to start the coffee and bring out the dessert, fearing that we had sat too long with no new diversion for our guests.  Catching Delphine’s eye I made a movement to rise, but with the slightest, hardly perceptible shake of the head she deterred me.  I settled back in my chair with surprise and watched her, composed, relaxed, making everyone at the table feel that they had every bit of her attention.  She had given her friends the gift of a meal and she was enjoying it.  She had no intention of rushing away the tranquil mood and meaningful conversation that her labors had produced.  And I realized with an inward grin that everyone at the table was enjoying it as much as she was.  Her peaceful demeanor had affected them all.  I relaxed and savored it as a perfectly happy moment, cherishing away the lesson of a hostess’ influence upon her guests.

I thought of her Saturday night, leaning my elbows on the table after dinner and smiling at the lively faces around me.  Talk flowed vibrantly from books to music and back to books again, and I delayed the dessert as long as I dared, unwilling to break the bright ring of exchange, wishing to linger over the pleasant ceremony of advancing to the next course.  After dessert we lingered still, and nearing midnight, when people actually began to take their leave, it was all I could do not to jump up and exclaim, “Oh, don’t go—not yet!”

On the Worth of Old Books

Wednesday, May 18th, 2005

Each age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.

C. S. Lewis

The greatest tragedy in the life of a book, in my humble opinion, is that of being purchased by a decorator—at a fabulous sum, no doubt—to stack artfully on a table, or to fill a barrister case that will never be opened. How is a book’s value determined but in the worth of its content? It is a sad commentary on the literacy of our day to see lovely old volumes piled up in displays in shopping malls and to know that no one will ever entertain the slightest notion of reading them. To be sure, there are reverent collectors who will pay a great deal of money for a first edition of Little Women, but will it profit them any more than the young girl who received a vision of womanliness and goodness upon reading it for the first time? Indeed, the bounty carried in her heart will so far outweigh the collector’s investment that they are not worthy to be compared.

I have handled a good many books in my time. Working for years in an old and rare bookstore, I was often entrusted with the restoration of a battered volume. I always saw it as such a privilege. The dingy cover was wiped clean with a thin coat of lighter fluid, and the illustrated plate at the front was secured with a careful bead of glue. Perhaps the spine needed a little reinforcing, or an old library card holder needed to be removed. At any rate, it was a joy to me to give these old books back their dignity.

Some had fallen into dereliction by abuse or neglect, cast out and orphaned, their only hoped pinned on the chance of someone looking past their ragged cover and crumbling pages in search of a timeless message, and that was always painful to see. But others had been loved into shabbiness, read into their worn condition by someone who had treasured the worth of their tale. Those books never seemed like orphans to me; they had a mission yet to fulfill, a charge from the one who had written them—and perhaps the one who had loved them—to work their way into another generation in another world and to tell of things that are true and honorable to those who yet have the ears to hear and the eyes to see.

There is a staunch, enduring quality to them, these messengers of a gentler, simpler era, and whether one regards their message or not, one must respect their tenacity of life. I have a weakness for all things old, but especially old books because of their great potential. They are a tangible link to the heart of another time, a time when godliness was venerated and womanliness and manliness gloried in. They are the sign posts directing us to the ways our hearts are longing for in this tumultuous time. What riches might lay within to charm, to inspire, to challenge! They have been the very fuel of my dreams from the time that I first picked up Anne of Green Gables, and was thus ushered into the presence of realities that have since run through my life like a lovely, irresistible song: beauty and purity and the divine glory of everyday life.

Indeed, such verities are all the more precious in our modern-day world for their scarcity, but they are still there, and to find them we must often only follow the pointing finger of a bygone author who had the gift and the foresight to entrust them to their pen. After all, what did Louisa May Alcott do but portray the beauty of virtue? Gene Stratton-Porter proclaimed the power of moral courage, and Lucy Maud Montgomery glorified the commonplace. There is no comparison between such classics and the drivel that is passed off as literature on the girls of today. There are those who would rather have a bright new paperback, no smudged fingerprints or underlined passages to mar the pages, no one else’s name in sweeping script inside the front cover. But to me, it is the marks and pencilings, the very name itself that give a book a life of its own. The faded gilt, the sleek, heavy pages, the sweet, slightly dusty smell—all of these things are wine to the soul for the lover of old books. Yes, give me the old ones, the classics, the timeless and the noble—but give me old copies of them.

When I was One-and-Twenty

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2005

On my twenty-first birthday I did a very sentimental thing.  I wrote a letter to myself on my best stationery, sealed it solemnly, and dated the envelope July 27, 2005.  Ten years later.  With a fluttery feeling about my heart I laid it reverently on the bottom of my new hope chest and piled on top all the lovely birthday gifts my friends and family had given me with which to feather my future nest.  And there it lay amid sandalwood-scented treasures, a gentle taunt from time to time when the search of some item would send me rifling through to the farthest reaches.  That is, until a few of weeks ago. 

I remembered it with a start the morning of my birthday.  It hardly seemed possible that ten years could have passed since that sweet starry night when I had knelt on my bedroom floor with a heart full of happy memories and maiden hopes and composed a missive to the self I was yet to be. 

I made quite an event of unearthing the letter, perusing each item in the chest with a tender eye: hand-painted slippers that had danced at my best friend’s wedding; baby clothes and unfinished bonnets; retired gowns laid lovingly by; my bridal veil; cards of lace bought on our honeymoon.  At the bottom was the letter, just as I had left it, and I lifted it out with a trembling sigh.  A preserved moment of my girlhood set by to shed its stolen fragrance upon a ‘wise old lady’ of 31!  It may as well have been from one of my ancestors, so great was my awe of it.  I almost hated to open it and break the charm. 

I don’t know exactly what I expected, a bit more longing, perhaps, more speculation about my future.  But with tears raining down my cheeks, I read of contentment and joy, of my love of my home and my dear family.  And the references to my future husband rang with a matter-of-fact confidence in the one man in all the world I knew that God would bring into my life one day.    

There were some rather pert questions, and, to my surprise, a goodly portion of advice.  I hope that you know that nothing and no one can give you what Jesus can.  I pray that you have allowed Him to do as He pleases with your life.  And now I wept with joy at God’s mercy, for if the intervening years have shown me anything, it is that my relationship with Christ is the most precious treasure there is.

 
I have always had very high ideals about love and romance.  As a little girl they were more of the ‘knight and lady fair’ variety; I am not ashamed to admit that by God’s grace such dear notions carried themselves over into my teenage years.  When I came to know Christ, and began to understand how much He loved me, it seemed the natural thing to ask Him to guide me and have His will in all areas of my life—including matters of the heart.  But as much as I wanted romance, as eager as I was to give my heart to the right man, I didn’t like what I saw in most of the typical dating relationships around me.  There was no commitment, no assurance that there was a serious end being considered.  I wanted to be wooed, courted, sought after.  I wanted my heart to be protected, and I wanted to go to my husband having saved every sweet thing for him, without a lot of scars from previous relationships.  And so, with a deep desire to live pleasing to God and with a loving thought of the man that was somewhere waiting for me, I made a choice.  I decided not to date until I was at an age and in a situation where marriage was a real possibility.

I asked my father to be involved, counting on his experience and wisdom to screen potential suitors, a task which he was only too willing to undertake.  I wanted his counsel, his blessing on any young man that tried to win my heart.  And in the years that lay between maidenhood and marriage, I enjoyed the safety of a watchful love that made a fence of itself about the green pasture of my youth. 

As I approached my twenties, however, I began to wonder if Daddy would ever have a chance to render his services.  To be sure, the mere fact of his looming presence, genial as it was, had served to scare off young men I wouldn’t have considered anyway, but at nineteen I couldn’t fathom what the big holdup was.  I was ready.  I knew how to plan meals and cook and sew.  On the top shelf of my closet was a tidy stash of china and linens.  My journal fairly ran over with longing.  I could not see any reason under heaven why God would delay.

Another four years would pass before the man I already loved came into my life.  But they were good years, rich and full and overflowing with tokens of God’s love.  I really believe that beneath that sweet burden of desire I learned to live as I never had before.  Life was an adventure and waiting on God a calling that was ripe with opportunity in and of itself.  I can honestly say that if my journal had not caught every tear and sigh I would find it hard to recall the anguish and doubt of unfulfilled hopes; when I look back on those days it is with a sense of tender awe at the companionship of God. 

            “So Lanier, do you have a boyfriend?” a well-meaning lady at church asked one morning.

            “No, she’s ‘waitin’ for her dearie’,” quoth my mother in breezy incomprehensibility.

            I gave the woman an uneasy smile and explained, “It’s a song.”

            “Ohhh.”  She never asked me again.

It was a song, one I very nearly wore out in those days.  But it voiced my desires with such happy confidence:

                        Waitin’ for my dearie, an’ happy am I
                        to hold my heart till he comes strollin’ by.
                        When he comes, my dearie, one look an’ I’ll know
                        That he’s the dearie I’ve been wantin’ so.
                        Though I’ll live forty lives till the day he arrives,
                        I’ll not ever, ever grieve.
                        For my hopes will be hi
gh that he’ll come strollin’ by;
                        For ye see, I believe
                        That there’s a laddie weary, and wanderin’ free,
                        Who’s waitin’ for his dearie:
                        Me!   

I will never forget the night that I met Philip.  A mutual friend had invited him to a gathering of my crowd, and as I walked in the room all I saw was a tall, dark-haired young man in a blue oxford shirt.  Our friendship began that night—and my battle.  For falling in love was harder than the waiting had ever been; and so beautiful, even in its perplexity, that I’d not change the slightest detail.  Over the next nine months, within the context of my very lively and high spirited crowd, I got to know this wonderful man that would eventually be my husband—but it was under a torment of uncertainty.  For Philip was such a gentleman, so careful in his manner towards all of the girls, that I had not the slightest reason to suspect that he regarded me with any special favor.  

            “He’s like Mr. Knightley,” my mother said over tea one day, always eager to draw a literary allusion.  “‘The last man in the world who would intentionally give any woman the idea of his feeling for her more than he really did.’” 

            I nodded miserably, for I had already made the connection in my own mind to Jane Austen’s impeccable hero. And I was as heart sore as Emma Wodehouse ever had the romantic imagination to be.

I went to England with my best friend and thought about Philip every day.  I relished the Inklings’ haunt in Oxford because of the talks we’d had about C. S. Lewis.  I saved up vignettes that I hoped he would laugh over.  And on top of the Wallace Monument one wind-swept Scottish afternoon I told Rachel that I thought I was in love.  It was as much a confession to myself as a confidence in my friend, and it made things both easier and harder.  I had drawn a line in the sand.  But I was more vulnerable than ever to what lay on the other side.

A brief previous experience had erased any fanciful notions I had that relationships were easy.  Along the way, it seems, I had added the experiences of friends, the books I had read, the speakers I had heard to the original simplicity of the ideals God had given me.  I had subtly shifted my confidence from the unfailing, if bewildering, providence of God to my own ability to keep myself pure, thinking naively that if I did things a certain way and followed a few rules that everything would unfold easily and naturally and without pain.  I knew now that the main thing, the only thing in all of life, was whether I was willing to pursue God through heartache and joy alike, or if I was going to take my life in my own hands and try to shield myself from any hurt that God knew would make me better.  For we can take the reins just as surely by following rules as we can by doing whatever we please.  A passage in C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves issued a daring challenge:

            “We shall draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to Him; throwing away all defensive armour.  If our hearts need to be broken, and if He chooses this as a way in which they should break, so be it.”

The pain of this love was a merciful tool of God that spring.  Amid picnics and bonfires and snatches of conversation at the coffee shop my heart was sifted to its very depths.  Leaning hard on God in utter weakness my hopes were laid before Him one by one.   But by the first of the summer I could bear it no longer. 

           Take him away, Lord, I prayed, just take him out my life if he’s not the one You have for me. If the answer is ‘no’, just go ahead and tell me. 

But the answer was ‘yes’, a ‘yes’ that resounded through my little world with a shout of triumph and joy; that fills my days yet with a song whose beauties I am only beginning to discover.  Six years ago the dearest man on earth made me his wife, and God made us one.  The desert of waiting became a fruitful field; the wilderness blossomed as the rose.  And I can only say in praise of the Lord that ‘they will never be ashamed that wait for Him’.          

Before I opened the birthday letter I had smiled to myself at the astonishment with which the 21 year-old Lanier would view my present abundance and blessing.  But now I’m not so sure that she would be all that surprised.  This, this beautiful love that I share with Philip and the home we have been blessed to build together is precisely what she saw in her girlhood visions.  This is what God Himself had given her the heart to hope for.