The Life Imagined

Saturday, August 28th, 2010

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

Distrust any enterprise that requires new clothes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tasha Tudor had died.

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

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

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

And Tasha had given me the courage to do it.

Autumn clematis ~ Tasha called it virgin's bower

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

I had forgotten.

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

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

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

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

The voices hammer loud in my head:

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

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

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

C.S. Lewis, Letters to An American Lady

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

Josephine amid the forget-me-nots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dog Days

Monday, August 9th, 2010

What dreadful hot weather we have! It keeps me in a continual state of inelegance. ~Jane Austen

Note: I wrote this piece two summers ago, and while circumstances don’t find me quite as artistically drained as I was then, it’s still a good word to myself in a historically thirsty time of year. This August was plenished  in an unprecedented way by the creative immersion of Hutchmoot, the first-ever in-the-flesh Rabbit Room assemblage, and the wells are brimming with inspiration. But today I am just right heartily tired…

It happens every summer. Just about the time my squash plants begin to wither up and die, succumbing at last to the insidious squash vine borers that I’ve been fighting since early June, something begins to wither inside of me. I pull out my little sleeveless smocked-yoke dress which is the coolest thing I own, I crank the air conditioning down to an unlawful 74, and, thumbing my nose at the mosquitoes outside, I officially enter survival mode. And there I remain, digging in my heels as it were, until that magical day when I turn the calendar page to September and everything begins to freshen up inside of me again. (Don’t ask me why this is; September in Georgia can be hotter than August. But September is always the beginning of everything, you know, even things that go along the same way, day in and day out…)

Thus ends my yearly love affair with summer. In May I am up to my ears in roses and in June I am giddy over the long hours of daylight and the fireflies and all the pretty clothes the season affords, but by this time in the year I am done. My forays into the garden are furtive, covert affairs, wherein I delight in outwitting the bugs that are laying in wait for me. And my poor garden itself, alas! is under a dictum of ‘survival of the fittest’ which means, quite plainly, ‘those that don’t require water will survive’, a condition which will remain in effect until Labor Day when all those bedraggled things will get pulled up and replaced with cool season crops. Ah, the very thought is like a tonic!

All of the ‘barn babies’ seem to be of the same frame of mind. The goats and the sheep venture into the pasture in the early morning and the early evening, and much of the rest of the time, if you chanced to stop by, you’d likely find them hanging out with the dogs and the cats and the chickens in the cool shelter of the barn. (I wish you could have seen the gay procession out to pasture this morning: Puck and Pansy leading the way with long Nubian ears flying as they pranced, fleecy white lambs ambling daintily along the track they’ve already worn on their perfect little black hooves, the two Pyrs, Juno and Diana watchful on either side and black kittens scampering behind. I think if I’d let the chickens out of their run they’d have fallen in line, as well!)

Ah, summer, what power you have to make us suffer and like it. -- Russel Baker

Caspian thinks that Dog Days mean that spoiled little indoor doggies get to just flop around on the cool wooden floors all day and have occasional ice cream treats (any of you dog lovers heard of Frosty Paws?) and popsicles (don’t tell him they are only ice cubes) and that a day’s work can be summed up in giving the mad rooster a quick run for his money around the yard. Yes, even daily walks have fallen by the wayside, and won’t be resumed till…you guessed it: September.

But as much as I anticipate this yearly doldrums—as much as I even look forward to it in a way as a fallow pause between the bright industry of the spring and the jam-packed poignancy of the autumn—I am always surprised by one aspect of it. I make such high writing goals for these languid months, calculating on the long, quiet afternoons and self-imposed borders within which words will spring up like obedient little flowers in a well-watered garden. The trouble is, and I’ve seen it perhaps more this year than others, the garden isn’t well-watered at all. In fact, it’s quite miserably parched. It makes my vegetable plot outside look like a verdant pleasure ground. The wells of creativity that I’ve been counting on are dry from little rain and choked with the debris of rushing about and hurry and frantic ‘doing’. For, much as we would all like to convince ourselves otherwise, inspiration is not an effortless flash that seizes us in a frenzy of output: words or music upon paper, brush and oil upon canvas, a delicate arrangement of hues in a garden. It is the result of quiet commitment to a passion that life would be colorless without, a daily and disciplined reckoning with what is important to us and what God has put within us.

I stand corrected before Him this summer as I’ve sat hour after hour before a blank computer screen. Replenishing is a slow and often painful process and it absolutely cannot be forced, a concept so utterly foreign in this ‘hurry up and do it yesterday’ culture of ours. We don’t like to have to wait for anything, whether it’s a meal or a line in the grocery store or a word beneath our itching fingers, poised on a breath above a keyboard. But the fact of the matter is that writing, as any other creative expression, is a process that requires nurturing outside of that time seated at our desks. There is a gentle reproof for artists in the words: Neglect not the gift that is in thee…

And we are all artists, of course. Every single one of us has our unique abilities and our unique way of looking at life, which are gifts of the Almighty and not to be disdained. This life is where we see God, and we see Him in two ways: In the merciful and mighty acts of His own creation, whether it be a violet and crimson sunset or a bird’s wing painted to perfection or the tender miracle of incarnate Love which He pours into our hearts and upon our circumstances. And we see Him revealed in the creative acts of His people. We all have to give an account of what we do with our talents. Or if talent sounds too pretentious, our affinities, which are really just divine endowments often muffled under a blanket of reticence or timidity or fear of making a fool of ourselves. I don’t call myself a writer because I think I am a good writer but because I absolutely must write. Because the created longs to lift a tribute to the Creator.

But when you’re walking through the mud and mire of writer’s block—or any other artistic mire—it never hurts to know that there are others out there that have experienced the same thing and that it’s a normal part of the creative journey we’re all on. And if it helps anyone else to hear of some of the means I’ve discovered of coping and hopefully growing through these arid seasons, then I’d be only too happy to share them in a later post.

But for now I have a frittata to put in the oven—you see, I did dash out and gather some vegetables and herbs from the garden, and the hens provided the rest—and then it’s down to the barn to tuck the animals all into their stalls for the night. It’s my favorite time of the day, the sun going down at last in a softened haze of pale gold and the breath of relief in the (somewhat) cooling air a promise of the regeneration to come.

For it will always come. We have our Father’s word on it:

I will turn the desert into pools of water, and the parched ground into springs…      ~Isaiah 41:18

originally published on YLCF

A New Reign Commences

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

Panav and Adhiraj

Flannery O’Connor called them the King of the Birds. She also said that instinct, not knowledge, led her to them.

I had never seen or heard one. Although I had a pen of pheasants and a pen of quail, a flock of turkeys, seventeen geese, a tribe of mallard ducks, three Japanese silky bantams, two Polish Crested ones, and several chickens of a cross between these last and a Rhode Island Red, I felt a lack.

Flannery O’Connor, The King of the Birds from Mystery and Manners, 1957

I can totally relate on both points: the instinct and the lack. I’ve wanted peacocks for longer than I can remember. I think I’ve always wanted them, truth be told, though I may not have always realized it. Reading Flannery’s incomparable essay on the regal creatures several years ago stoked the embers of desire into a positive flame. A flame I’ve tended daily as I’ve passed the old chicken run on the morning constitutional with Caspian.

“That’s where we’ll keep them at first,” I’ve told him so often that I wonder he hasn’t preempted me and said it himself a time or two. “Just till they know this is Home. Then they can have the run of the place. It will be their Kingdom.”

But I had no idea that Someday would materialize into Now with such a delightful impetuosity on the part of my husband. He really outdid himself for my birthday this year.

He gave me two India Blue peacocks.

I am so in love. With Philip, yes. And with my wonderful birds. I got up the morning after we brought them home and stole out to the barn in my slippers and robe just to make sure they were really there and that I had not merely dreamed them. Two shockingly blue necks snaked themselves out from behind the crate we had brought them home in and two pairs of wide-awake, white-framed eyes regarded me, if not with interest, a least with the condescension of a faint acknowledgment.

It was at that moment, I think, that my love turned to worship. I can’t get enough of them, and they’re not even into their full plumage yet–two years old and in what Flannery endearingly (and aptly) calls the ‘ragbag’ stage. Their wing feathers are brown as the packed earth beneath their chicken feet and their backs and tails are striped black and white, just like the commonplace feathers of my very prosaic Barred Rocks. But there is nothing prosaic about these princes-in-residence: they bear themselves like the royalty they are and when the sun hits those feathers at just the right angle you can see the shimmer of a green that will put the best efforts of summer to shame. I sit or crouch or stand beside their pen and marvel at their every move, each glance of light and shadow producing some wildness of beauty that surpasses all that’s gone before.

The Prince Regents

I gave them names that reflect their noble lineage: Adhiraj (“king”) and Panav (“prince”). I’ve been bringing them oblations of the best I can manage: grapes cold from the refrigerator and raspberries warm off the vine, chunks of homemade bread and handfuls of Diana’s premium dog food.

“I want them to know that this is the very best place a peacock could come to live,” I told Philip.

He knows I am already their abject slave. They, on the other hand, would expect nothing less.

The one previous experience I have with peacocks is not one I’m necessarily proud of. It was in England, on an evening in May, and we were just crossing the lane to ‘The Trout’ in Oxford when a blood-curdling scream pierced the tranquil air. I grabbed Philip’s arm in abject terror, thinking someone must surely have been murdered on the river terrace out back.

“What was that?” I gasped.

Philip looked down at me with an incredulous smile.

“You want peacocks, and you don’t know what that was?”

Nevertheless, I am nothing daunted. I am well aware of all the stereotypes surrounding peacocks. Friends have chided me playfully over the noise and the penchant for flowers these birds seem so notoriously to possess. I smile with the smile that knows that sheep are not stupid and goats don’t eat everything and resume my adoration. I am fascinated. I am fascinated with their history and their adaptability. And I am fascinated with their symbolism in the works of O’Connor and Augustine’s figure of the Resurrection.

And I am honored that we can give such beautiful things a home with us, well aware that they may see it the other way around. 😉

The night we went to pick them out, my boys’ father put on a show for us. We had been chatting in front of the barn with the breeder and his wife and I had been casting wistful glances towards the strutting cock, trailing his gorgeous raiment through the dust behind him.

“I wish he’d display for us,” I sighed.

“Just wait,” our new friend grinned with a wink. “He won’t pass up an opportunity like this.”

It was hardly a moment before the bird turned to face us, every iota of royalty in the royal blue of his head and neck charged with a sudden electric thrill that held us mesmerized and took our breath. Slowly, rhythmically, the massive tail began to shake, feathers standing erect and trembling to life. With a great swoop it was up and over his head, a hundred green and golden eyes staring back at us, radiant as small suns. And in the same moment he began to turn, carefully, meditatively, as much as to say, “You may admire me from all sides, if you please.”

“He thinks he’s as pretty from the back as he is from the front,” the breeder snickered good-naturedly.

But I was nowise tempted to laugh. I was speechless with the thought that God would make something that beautiful, with no other apparent purpose than its beauty.

As soon as the birds were out of their crate, I sat down on it and began to look at them, writes Flannery. I have been looking at them ever since…

You should all know where to find me.

Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless; peacocks and lilies, for instance. ~Ruskin

Nothing so rare…

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

"The lovingkindness of the Lord fills the whole earth..." ~Psalm 33:15

‘T is heaven alone that is given away,
‘T is only God may be had for the asking;
There is no price set on the lavish summer,
And June may be had by the poorest comer.

"Light dawns for the righteous and joy for the upright in heart." ~ Psalm 97:11

And what is so rare as a day in June?
Then, if ever, come perfect days;
Then Heaven tries the earth if it be in tune,
And over it softly her warm ear lays:
Whether we look, or whether we listen,
We hear life murmur, or see it glisten;

Magdalen ("Maudie") at her morning post

Every clod feels a stir of might,
An instinct within it that reaches and towers,
And, grasping blindly above it for light,
Climbs to a soul in grass and flowers;
The flush of life may well be seen
Thrilling back over hills and valleys;

the bounty of the henhouse

The cowslip startles in meadows green,
The buttercup catches the sun in its chalice,
And there ‘s never a leaf or a blade too mean
To be some happy creature’s palace;

"Then man goes out to his work, to his labor until evening." ~Psalm 104:23

The little bird sits at his door in the sun,
Atilt like a blossom among the leaves,
And lets his illumined being o’errun
With the deluge of summer it receives;
His mate feels the eggs beneath her wings,
And the heart in her dumb breast flutters and sings;
He sings to the wide world, and she to her nest,–
In the nice ear of Nature which song is the best?

"How many are Your works, O Lord! in wisdom You made them all; the earth is full of Your creatures." ~Psalm 104:24

Now is the high-tide of the year,
And whatever of life hath ebbed away
Comes flooding back, with a ripply cheer,
Into every bare inlet and creek and bay;
Now the heart is so full that a drop overfills it,
We are happy now because God so wills it;
No matter how barren the past may have been,
‘T is enough for us now that the leaves are green;

"Let the morning bring me word of Your unfailing love..." ~Psalm 143: 8

We sit in the warm shade and feel right well
How the sap creeps up and the blossoms swell;
We may shut our eyes, but we cannot help knowing
That skies are clear and grass is growing;
The breeze comes whispering in our ear,
That dandelions are blossoming near,
That maize has sprouted, that streams are flowing,
That the river is bluer than the sky,
That the robin is plastering his house hard by;

"He makes grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate--bringing forth food from the earth." ~Psalm 104: 14

For other couriers we should not lack;
We could guess it all by yon heifer’s lowing,–
And hark! how clear bold chanticleer,
Warmed with the new wine of the year,
Tells all in his lusty crowing!

mesclun frame

Joy comes, grief goes, we know not how;
Every thing is happy now,
Every thing is upward striving;
‘T is as easy now for the heart to be true
As for grass to be green or skies to be blue,–

zucchini, gaura and pole beans

‘T is the natural way of living:
Who knows whither the clouds have fled?
In the unscarred heaven they leave no wake;
And the eyes forget the tears they have shed,
The heart forgets its sorrow and ache;

the morning's harvest

The soul partakes the season’s youth,
And the sulphurous rifts of passion and woe
Lie deep ‘neath a silence pure and smooth,
Like burnt-out craters healed with snow.

from The Vision of Sir Launfal by James Russell Lowell

Hiving the Bees

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

On Saturday morning we had a lovely surprise: a call from the post office to inform us that our bees had arrived! We jumped in the car and headed right over--I couldn't wait to bring them home and show them their garden and the lovely houses we had prepared for them.

It's best to hive them in the cool of early evening, but by seven o'clock a rumbly batch of thunderstorms had moved in. We literally installed them in moments snatched between downpours. And notice my brave bee charmer, sans gloves or veil!

The first step is to remove the queen's cage. She's surrounded by her loyal subjects, all trying desperately to get her out, but it's not until you remove the tiny cork at the end of her cage that the bees are able to eat through the fondant plug and release her. Our job is merely to nestle the cage between two empty frames in the hive: the bees do the rest.

We each took a package to hive, and while Philip's went in with perfect calmness and decorum (I told you he was a bee charmer), mine got rather feisty. Perhaps it was the whole unceremoniousness of the thing--Philip reminded me how little I'd like being shaken and dumped into a new house of my own. Or maybe it's just that wild Tudor blood in Queen Bess' hive rearing its head...

Yes, I name my bees. Or, at least, I name my queens. Even I admit to being stumped by the naming of tens of thousands of bees. But the monarch in the hive pictured is Good Queen Bess. And the queen of the other hive is Mary Mac--she is named for my grandmother's sister, the oldest of five indomitable women, and she was, in every sense of the word, 'the queen bee' of the family. Here I'm pouring sugar syrup into the hive top feeder to sustain the bees and to give them a good start while they are setting up their colony.

The Kingdoms of Queen Mary Mac and Queen Bess, Respectively

Last night we went in for our first inspection, to remove the empty queen cages and to make sure that everyone was thriving. Philip smoked them slightly--not enough to make them think there was a forest fire encroaching, but sufficiently to calm them so that we could lift the frames without getting anybody too riled up.

What joy to find that not only had both hives been successfully queened, those busy girls had already drawn out many of the frames with beeswax and were preparing for a healthy brood of new bees! You can see the marks of their industry in the great world by the bright yellow streakings of pollen in the comb.

This little girl landed on Philip's hood and didn't have any desire to leave. Isn't she beautiful? Her name is Hermione.

Kindness of Strangers

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

Innocence Mission again. Same album; different song.

But that loaded phrase has been a song of its own in my heart and mind these past few days. A token of grace and a good word of God’s love poured out through other people.

You aren’t really strangers, of course. Some of you heard of our grief first-hand. Some of you literally rolled up your sleeves and bore our burden with us. Some of you are a smiling face behind a stream of regular comments. But every one of you has given me the relief that we humans are always gasping after: the knowledge that we’re not alone. And the fact that you care–so deeply–and that you take the time to tell me is really just amazing. I’ve gone through your words with tears in my eyes–messages, comments, emails. I’ve read the poems you’ve suggested and I’ve cherished the Scriptures and quotes. And I’ve admired the love you bear towards your own friendly beasts. I thought I would just duck my head into the comments and tell you there what your kindness has meant. But I decided  it deserved a post of its own.

So thank you. Thank you for revering my sorrow. It isn’t popular to grieve over an animal, at least not according to the dictates of smug-faced pop-theology that assumes everything’s all figured out and every mystery accounted for. I know–you know–there’s more to it than a set of rules (acceptable grieving being among them) and a bunch of closed doors with nothing on the other side. I have been thinking long thoughts along these lines; perhaps they will germinate into a post.

But I wanted you to know what your kindness has meant, and not just on this occasion. Kipling said it so well: “We give our hearts to dogs to tear.” And to cats, I might add. And goats and sheep and chickens. And what a privilege it is to be thus torn. I’d not go through life whole, without such precious scars, for all the world.

Puck and Pansy

“Beautiful life, full of grieving…”

Monday, May 24th, 2010

springtime chicks, 2009

That snippet of an Innocence Mission lyric has been running through my mind the past couple of weeks: newly weighted with meaning; warm like the steadying handclasp of a friend.

For over two years now, we have known the almost unclouded joy of a dream-made-real here on our farm-in-the-city. We have stood amazed as God brought to life one request after another in the beautiful forms of all of these ‘friendly beasts’ with whom He has so graciously allowed us to share this bit of earth. We’ve had a real-time crash course in animal husbandry and we have laughed as much at our own ineptitude as at the antics of all our creatures. And we have learned much—so very much—from these mute witnesses to a loving and lovely Creator. The grace of God has been dealt to me in trusting eyes and velvet noses and swishing white tails in a way that has changed me forever.

We have been spared more times than we know by the Preserver of man and beast. But even the ‘boundaries that enclose a pleasant land’ cannot keep out pain and sorrow and the awful effects of a fallen world. We’ve drunk deeply of a bitter cup the past couple of weeks—a cup we’d never have chosen but one which yet bears the sweet fragrance of grace and a love beyond our imagining. And we know, as never before, that the Lord is loving and faithful towards all He has made.

In one tragic moment we lost both our beloved Nubian doe, Pansy, and our beloved Pyr, Juno. I know you’ll forgive me for refraining from details too painful to dwell on much less write about, but suffice it to say that I feel like I have been living in a rather horrid mixture of Old Yeller and Where the Red Fern Grows. (Both of which, incidentally, absolutely tore me to pieces as a child. And as an adult. The Lord knows our point of pain…) It was a blow that we’re still staggering under; a double-edged sword. And I am not ashamed to say how deeply I am grieving over a goatling and a big white dog.

The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. And He has given so much more than we ever could have anticipated. On the day of our sorrow, as we were speeding home through the night from an interrupted vacation, we kept voicing our truths to one another: We have no regrets. We’d not go back and undo the love to be spared the pain of it. The loss, even in its agony, is a feeble thing beside the joy that these animals have given us.

The thorn is no match for the sweetness of the rose.

A few days before we had left town there was a surprise waiting for us in the barn one morning. Butterfly, our ‘missing’ Rhode Island Red turned up in one of the stalls. With a peeping, pecking bundle of fluff at her side. I was literally stunned stupid.

“Where did she come from?” I blurted out.

The crowing of our rooster yanked me out of my imbecility and I grinned up at Philip.

“Margot’s a daddy!”

(Now, if you want to know why I have a rooster named Margot, we’ll have to save that for another time. Or maybe you could just think about it. For a minute.)

Butterfly and Gertie

I was flummoxed and overjoyed at the same time. The first little life actually born on our farm! It was nothing short of a miracle! And yet danger was lurking on every side, it seemed: Maudie the cat was stealthily slinking in through an upper window, and Juno in her eager oblivion threatened to step on the baby with one huge paw and never know the difference. Turns out we had all failed to anticipate the legendary fierceness of a hen for her chick—let’s just say that all the proverbs are true. But we managed, nonetheless, to scoop up Butterfly and her newly christened little one, Gertie, and deposit them safely into the brooder that we keep in the hens’ stall for the raising of store-bought chicks. With food and water, room to stretch her legs and plenty of hay to rest in, Butterfly settled happily into her new quarters and I, at last, could enjoy the fact that we had a new baby on the farm.

I spent way more time in the barn than I had that day, popping into the maternity ward, as it were, to check on our honored pair. But more often than not I didn’t see Gertie at all. Save for an occasional peep and a tiny head popping out of Butterfly’s feathers, you almost wouldn’t know she was in there. Gertie was tucked up where any utterly defenseless baby chick ought to be: under her mother’s wing.

And so we left on vacation in the joy of new life. And we came home in the literal darkness to the darkness of loss and death. I remember coming into the barn with Philip that night, switching on the light and waking everybody up. Going into Puck’s stall where he was sleeping alone for the first time in his life and falling on my knees beside him with my arms around his dear neck and my hands stroking his long Nubian ears. My grief was so searing that I wept aloud. And so much was the commotion that the whole barn was literally filled with the tumult of it. A bleating goat. Sheep noisily protesting the interruption of their slumbers. A rooster crowing and hens clucking their annoyance.

But over every other noise was one shrill, persistent, terrified. The peeping of a chick that was so loud and unremitting that it sounded like ten chicks instead of one. It went on for so long that I got up at length and went to look in at the brooder to make sure everything was alright. And there was Butterfly, waddling around after Gertie, trying in vain to soothe her hysterical baby who was flying about the cage in a senseless elusion. She would draw near and open up a wing and off Gertie would run to the other end of the brooder, as if devoid of all hope of safe haven after such a rude awakening. I watched this performance several times in succession until Butterfly, bleary-eyed if ever a hen could be and doubtless thoroughly tired of this game, walked over and unceremoniously sat upon her charge. The silence was instant and the other animals seemed to settle with it. The next I saw of Gertie was a pair of beady, contented little eyes peering over the edge of Butterfly’s wing.

It was one of the most beautiful living pictures of the love of God that I have ever seen and He spoke to my heart with it in a way that I will remember to my dying day.

That’s where I want you, my child. Cease from all your strife and know that I am God. Come under My wing and stay there.

I thought of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem: …how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings… Of the mighty tenderness of God who keeps me as the apple of His eye and takes me and my sorrows under the shelter of an overshadowing love. Of the goodness of the One Who sees, and not unmovedly, the fall of a sparrow and Who knows the very hairs of my head. 

So, yes, I am grieving. But I am grieving in the safest place in all the universe. With my face pressed in close against His feathers. And, let me tell you, the tender mercies there are Real.

Your holy wings, O Savior, spread gently over me,
And let me rest securely through good and ill in thee.

Caroline Sandell-Berg

Pansy, March 10, 2008--May 10, 2010

All we like sheep…

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

Pansy

It was a regular free-for-all.

An unlatched gate, a freakish puff of passing wind, and in moments the bucolic tranquility of a sleepy afternoon unraveled into a three-ring circus. I came downstairs just in time, glanced out the window with serene satisfaction (I should have known better), and gasped in horror. Slamming down my freshly-brewed cup of chamomile tea, I tore out the back door, pausing only to slip my feet into some ridiculous garden clogs that refuse to stay on my feet under ordinary circumstances and which were certainly never intended to sustain the rigors of hot pursuit.

The backyard seemed full of them, though in reality it was only two goat kids and six lambs. But they were racing in mad circles, eluding all capture, in a hundred directions at once. And there was only one of me. I swear that naughty Pansy, my Nubian doeling, was laughing at me over her shoulder as she ran. And Puck her brother was on to me, as well, wanting nothing to do with the grain I desperately offered him which, in the ordinarily calm routine of the barnyard, is the day’s most looked-for treat. The dogs, tearing back and forth along the fence with frantic barks of alarm were only adding to the confusion, but I got the distinct impression that that bossy and capable Juno of mine was thoroughly put out with me for allowing her babies to place themselves in such danger. I refrained from reminding her that it was on her watch that they had escaped in the first place.

In the end I was reduced to the capture-and-carry strategy. I’m pretty wiry, but after toting a couple of wriggling and kicking goats across the yard and depositing them on the proper side of the fence, then baiting a few lambs with grain and treating them in a like inglorious manner, I was completely worn out. And hot and dirty and mad. As I looked around at the little imps now browsing calmly on my crepe myrtles I had a hard time believing that these were the same creatures as those wooly darlings that came running up to me for pettings and ear-scratchings, that nuzzled my hand with velvet noses and followed me into the barn every night with an eager obedience I couldn’t help being flattered by.

And now, with the taste of rebellion in their mouths, seasoned with the consequent flavor of fear, their shepherdess was the very last thing in the world they wanted to encounter. It was all my boys who were left—Benedick, Sebastian and Harry, the largest and boldest of them all, named for the intrepid Henry V. (Not that I think my girls were that much less rebellious—they’re only smaller and easier to tote. I had unaccountably saved my wethers for my exhausted state.) After a few more breathless turns around the yard and a desperate prayer or two, I was finally able to corral Sebastian and then Benedick, who suffered themselves to be plopped down in the pasture without a fuss once they saw the game was up. Besides, I think they were rather keen to be with their friends again—the way of transgressors, you know, is hard. And lonely.

Titania and Beatrice

But Harry was another matter altogether. My showy, beautiful boy, with his curling horns that would have been quite impressive had we left him a ram, my stout-hearted baby who loves kisses on the top of his pure white head just as much as he loves ramming it against one of his brothers’—he was, there was no mistaking it, abjectly terrified. Of me. He led me on a wild chase, and what a sight it must have been. The ridiculous shoes were left behind in a tangle of periwinkle; my blue dress was now an unbecoming shade of red clay; and I think, if one had looked closely, they would have seen smoke coming out of my ears. And then something happened that erased my anger in a moment and replaced it with a fear that took my breath. Harry eluded me again, made a quick turn, and went racing off down the driveway, as fast as his legs would carry him. There was no way I could catch him.

“Jesus! Please let the gate be closed!” I shouted as I pursued him, like one in a nightmare whose feet are lodged in mud.

It was. Thanks be to God. If it wasn’t, I feel sure he’d be in Alabama by now.

I collapsed in the driveway and he stood there, just out of arms’ reach, regarding me warily, with panic flickering in those gorgeous, limpid eyes of his. We were both panting; every so often he’d turn suddenly and ram himself against the pasture fence, in a futile attempt to regain the old life and the sweetness of security on the other side. It broke my heart—

“It’s me, Harry—I’m trying to help you,” I fairly sobbed.

There was only one way back into all that he’d so impulsively forsaken, and which his brothers and sisters were now enjoying as placidly as if nothing had ever happened. And I was the only one that could give it to him. At last in our mutual exhaustion and by nothing short of a miracle, I was able to direct him into the barnyard, where he stumbled about for a while, too dazed even to drink. My relief took the last bit of strength that I had—I quite literally wept for joy.

I think the very angels in heaven were glad.

"the Warlike Harry..."

originally published 2008 on YLCF

Abloom and Afresh

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

Welcome, maids of honor, You doe bring in the spring, And wait upon her. ~Robert Herrick, 'To Violets'

There is something in the air today that feels like England. I caught its fragrance this morning the moment I opened the windows. A greenness that you could smell, inhale, be nourished by. A great leaping joy in growing things and in the songs of the birds. And when I took my little constitutional after breakfast, I could almost imagine that I was there–if I stopped and closed my eyes my sweet white-throated sparrow might just be an English robin and the grass beneath my feet the satiny verdure of a hill pasture in Cornwall. Even the aroma of the barn as I passed it, the ‘rich, ovine scent’, to paraphrase Mr. Herriot, was full of happy associations. The sky was overcast with a pale curtain of light-filled clouds, a strange sort of relief from the almost unbearably lovely April days of blossom and sunshine we’ve been enjoying, and I was glad to need the little sweater that I had grabbed on my way out the door.

Then it began to rain, the sweetest, silvery-est shower, and it felt more like England than ever. The moisture seemed to coax the heart out of every mingled fragrance abroad–cut grass and violet banks and crabapple blossoms and green leaves–decanting it all as it were into an intoxicating libation of Spring. I passed the goats and sheep on the way back to the house, running as joyfully towards their shelter as I was for my own, and I laughed out loud.

There’s not one spot on all the face of this earth that I would rather inhabit at this moment than the one that I am on.

I’ve traded the coquetry of May and the poignancy of September for the charms of the Blessed Plot and hardly glanced back over my shoulder. I’ve left my roses blooming to wander in a daze through the gardens of the Cotswolds and I’ve gladly exchanged summer’s last giddy fling to feel the breath of autumn on my face in Oxford.

But I just don’t think that I could trade the magic of April for any other splendors that this world affords. Even the world that is England and is as dear to me as native turf. Browning taunts me, as he does each year, with his plaint, Oh, to be in England, now that April’s there! But I feel sure that if I missed all this sweetness and light, these heaven-fresh mornings and sun-shot twilights and this greening of the bit of earth that is my own, I’d be just as homesick for it as Browning himself was for his ‘blossomed pear tree’ and ‘wise thrush’ .

...and scatters on the clover blossoms and dewdrops..." Robert Browining, 'Home Thoughts from Abroad'

There is a sweet alchemy at work in my world. Trees watched anxiously have burst into flower and leaf while we glanced away. Old friends have shown their first blossomed faces in my flower garden and grape vines that looked devoid of life a week ago are covered with tiny flags of foliage. We’ve been hard at work every Saturday–in the wind and the sun, with farmers’ tans to prove it–clearing away the debris of a long winter and preparing for the glad season to come. The beehives have been painted afresh. The barn foundation has been jacked up and replaced. The beds have been cleared in my vegetable garden and are waiting to welcome the seeds of summer towards the middle of next week.

And there’s been a mirrored image of it all in own heart, it seems. A renewing of the mind. A needful pruning. A tending and nourishing of faith. It is no exaggeration to say that this was the most meaningful and probing Lenten season that I have ever known–and how the sadness of winter’s last hold seemed to underscore it all!

But the beauty of April has heralded the beauty of the Resurrection in a way that I will never forget. Easter morning seemed lent  from Heaven itself, so fresh and lovely and full of joy. The church service was a glorious pageantry of trumpets and incense and a Cross so wreathed in flowers as it made my eyes well to look at it. The lingering resonance of an angelic descant and the great, glad, joyous pealing of bells as we stepped out into the sunshine.

And there we were met with the music of the birds, just as joyful; the garlanding of flowers upon the dogwood trees; the sweet incense of Life in God’s awakened world.

Thanks be to God for His unspeakable Gift.

He calls them by name

Monday, March 1st, 2010

Titania

The one thing that people invariably ask me when they see my sheep for the first time is, “Can you really tell them apart?”

I never cease to be amazed and tickled by this. It’s like asking the mother of a blonde-haired brood if she really knows who’s who. I want to laugh out loud and exclaim, “Well, for starters, the boys have horns!” (The girls do, too, incidentally, but they are such dainty little adornments that you really don’t notice them at first.) And how on earth could anyone with eyes mistake that exquisitely placid expression of Beatrice’s for the pert little inquisitive one of Hermia? Isn’t it quite as plain to everyone else that Benedick looks just like Kenneth Branagh and that Harry is dignity itself and that Sebastian has an almost dog-like friendliness about him? Titania with her fastidious little nose the color and sheen of wheat-colored velvet and that adorable widow’s peak of wool that grows down over her forehead? And what about Ophelia—honestly, if you didn’t know better you’d think she made up those gorgeous eyes of hers daily with mascara and eyeliner.

But I have an advantage over the casual acquaintance of my flock: the keen and unmistaking eye of Love. I love my sheep. I love them to the point of utter distraction. The slightest bleat sends me dashing to the back porch just to make sure everyone is alright and happy. I know where each of them likes to be scratched and who likes apples better than pears and which one is most liable to pick a fight when they’re hungry. And who they’re going to pick a fight with. And when I call them of an evening, and they lift their heads from the bit of earth they’ve been grazing, recognizing my voice and my form and then come at a run, I seriously wonder if there’s any finer compliment in life.

I love my sheep so much that people laugh at my supposed neurosis in measuring and mixing grain and my insistence on ‘horse quality’ hay. When a cold ran through them at the change in the weather last fall, I was the Florence Nightingale of the barnyard, administering tinctures and vitamins and herbs to anyone who so much as sniffed. I’ll go over the pasture with a fine-toothed comb checking for wild cherry (a real no-no) and hand clip treats of cedar and pine for them from the family farm to bring back as a surprise.

My little flock is a lovely, living, daily parable. Predictably, all of the verses in the Bible that have even the slightest reference to sheep have come more alive to me in the last year than ever before. I’ve become fascinated with the differences between the Eastern shepherds, which are the pattern of our Bible stories and allegories, and the more contemporary Western approach. Jesus wasn’t just embellishing his narrative of the Good Shepherd and His sheep in John 10 with a few pretty, humanizing details. When He says that the He calls His sheep by name, His audience knew exactly what He was talking about. According to Phillip Keller in A Shepherd Looks at the Good Shepherd and His Sheep, the modern, industrialized mind cannot conceive of the bond that these shepherds have with the individual members of their flock:

A…remarkable aspect of the care of animals in these countries is that each one is known by name. These names are not simple common names such as we might choose. Rather, they are complex and unique because they have some bearing upon the history of the individual beast.

Hermia, Titania, Sebastian and Harry

I’ve had the unique opportunity this past year of looking at things from the shepherd’s perspective. I have experienced first hand the joy that comes of a sheep learning its name, learning to trust me, learning to look me in eye without a shade of fear in those gorgeous limpid depths of theirs. I have an inkling of how Jesus feels when His sheep run to Him not only for protection, but for the sheer pleasure of His presence. And I will never, never forget the first time that my sheep actually followed me.

It was several weeks after we had brought them home, and I was just beginning to smile rather sadly upon my preconceived notions of ‘pet lambs’ as a naïve delusion. After hand-feeding them grain and spending hours in the stall with them, talking quietly to accustom them to the sound of my voice and consciously avoiding the perceived threat of direct eye contact, they still seemed rather indifferent and afraid. One evening, however, just about the time the sun met the tops of the pines fringing our west pasture and the light became diffused with a dusting of gold you could almost touch, I went out to call them in for the night. I rattled the grain scoop. I called them again. I could see them all, grazing beneath the pecan tree, a portrait of ovine contentment. Suddenly one of them raised their head—Hermia, I’m sure it was—and looked right at me. A bleat and an answering “Blah!” And suddenly, with a tender thundering of little hooves they were coming at a run. I turned towards the barn and they fell in behind, scampering and capering and clicking their heels and bobbing their heads, as lively as my goatlings could ever be. And I walked on, cooing and soothing with the voice they had at last learned to trust, feeling about ten feet tall.

“Lord, is this something of what it must be like for You?” my spirit whispered.

But I knew without saying that it was. This wonderful, beautiful acknowledgment of Love; this sprightly little parable Peace, It went straight to my heart, stamping an image, a moment, that will be with me forever.

My name is not only known to Him—it is precious to Him. He is not only acquainted with but passionately interested in the details that make up my life. Nothing is too unpleasant a task for His ministering hand. He cares for me every bit as tenderly as I do my flock of seven—every bit and a universe’s worth of more. And when I follow Him, my joy is second only to His.

He does not drive us from behind, goading us on as the Western shepherds do, with dogs and commands. He leads. He calls us by name with a voice that is our soul’s sweetest music. And in the voluntary compulsion of Love, we follow Him. And what follows us? Goodness and mercy, all sufficient and all encompassing, all the days of our lives. Green pastures and quiet waters and an unfailing Presence in the valley of the shadow. We shall not know the meaning of want.

My sheep had to choose to trust me. They have to remember who I am when they see me coming with that odious dosing syringe, dripping wormwood. Through all the ordeal of hoof trimming and shearing. Through the winter barrenness when I portion out the right amount of hay—neither too little or too much—for their sustenance. And in the coming plenty of spring when I limit them from one pasture and choose for them another. Because with all the ear scratches and loves and apples and goodnight kisses, comes a whole lot of stuff that’s not as much fun in their opinion.

I doubt that Jesus could have chosen a more tender, a more infinitely attentive symbol for His relation to us. For me, as I go about my barn duties, from mucking stalls to picking up the wheelbarrow an impish Sebastian has just overturned, to running a careful hand over everyone as they go out to pasture, it is a mercy that is new every single morning.

out to pasture

originally published 2008 on YLCF