A Month by the Sea: Finding Solitude

Tuesday, September 16th, 2014

Sunday before last, I stood on the airstrip of this little island of ours and watched a single-engine prop plane take off and disappear into the clouds, feeling very much like a heroine in an old black-and-white movie—and suddenly very alone. For Philip was on that plane, a kind pilot friend having offered to spirit him back to the city for the work week, and I was facing the prospect of camping all by myself for six whole days. Not that I was adverse to the plan—it was one of the things that’s making this time by the sea a possibility, and I am grateful, not only to my husband, but to our friend, whose generosity both simplified our scheme and gave Philip a good, old-fashioned adventure. (“You’ve got to see the marshes from the air,” he keeps telling me. “You’ll never look at them the same way again after viewing them from 1000 feet.”) Nor was I necessarily opposed to the prospect of so many days of aloneness: Solitude and I are old friends, and here was certainly an opportunity to renew her acquaintance in an entirely new way. Nevertheless, it was hard to think of being here in this loved place without the one whom my soul loves, and as I stood there under a leaden sky, with the wind snapping my skirt against my legs, a funny little desolation crept over me. I listened until the plane was out of earshot, then I walked slowly back across the runway to my car. The Airstream seemed so empty, even with a nine-month old puppy in residence—if 24 feet of aluminum-sheathed trailer can echo, I swear they did that day. And so, I did what any rational female would do: I sat down on the sofa and had a little cry.

After that, I pulled myself together and made a Plan. I was resolved to demonstrate my love and thanks by having much to show for these days—I honestly cannot think of another time in my life when I’ve had absolutely nothing to do but write. Bonnie and I quickly established our little routine, which included, among other things, a nightly FaceTime chat with Philip (fun for me and wholesomely confusing for her!), as well as a morning hour in bed with coffee and journal (well, Bonnie didn’t journal that much—she mostly licked my face and sloshed my coffee). I grew comfortable with the systems, like angling the awning at the threat of rain, and lighting the pilot lights on our Princess stove each morning, and I made a master list of daily requisites: reading, prayer and intentional silence, walks and bike rides, and, of course, writing. I outlined my novelling goals in no uncertain terms: One-half chapter a day. Period.

She's a member of the National Geographic Society.

On Monday I picked up a lovely, perfect moon shell—not at the shore, as one might imagine, but at the base of a tree in my own campsite. Was it left there by another pilgrim into silence, some other lone soul learning again or anew the language of solitude? It reminded me of the words of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, from her slim jewel, Gift From the Sea:

“Solitude,” says the moon shell. Every person, especially every woman, should be alone sometime during the day, some part of each week, and each year…the core, the inner spring, can best be re-found through solitude.

I told one of my best friends before we came down here that I was really looking forward to re-finding my solitude. I’m often alone in the round of my life at home—but being alone is not nearly the same thing as being alone with yourself. To be alone with yourself, there first must be a purposeful silencing of the mental chatter with which we’re all so tempted to swaddle our brains in this busy, productive world of ours—and that can be a terrifying thing, particularly if one has forgotten how healing and helpful the deep silences can be. For the only true aloneness, of course, is aloneness with God, open-handed and empty of pretense. How easy it is to base our standing in grace upon our own efforts, howsoever boldly we might declare otherwise. I don’t think I realized how much I’d been congratulating myself over small successes and writhing under habitual failures (that sharp word, that condescending thought, that deadly ingratitude!) until forced to confront the facts in the seclusion of my own soul. All week I carried an image in my mind of a fretful, fussy infant soothed into sudden and unavoidable comfort by the encircling warmth of strong arms which, unlike even the most faithful human embrace, will never let go. My soul is even as a weaned child, said the Psalmist. Be still and know that I am God, said the Lover of my soul. Allright, I said, with the wind and the waves and the sea birds circling overhead as witness. I have no other choice.

Sunday's (extraordinary) sunset.

I was taken aback the first week of our sojourn by the crippling fear that seized me every time I sat down to write. It was really amazing, something I had to painfully press through. I’m realizing, the older I get, that the toll of “too much” on my inner equilibrium is getting steeper and steeper, an expense I can ill-afford to perpetuate. And it always manifests after a season of soul neglect as a serious discrepancy in the inspiration department. There were so many negative voices to drown out when I was trying to write I could hardly hear myself think. But somewhere round about Tuesday of the second week, a curious thing happened. I was writing away (rather grimly, I’m afraid), when my imagination caught the faintest prick of light, like a lone firefly amid the murky shades of a dark wood. I hesitated, pencil poised thoughtfully. Then, seeing as I had absolutely nothing to lose but a few pages of bad prose, I followed it. First one fairy lamp appeared, and then another, and another. And before I knew it, I was in love with my story again, writing furiously each day, often till after 7 at night. It just felt so intoxicating to be anchored in the scenes once more, to know that old excitement that presents itself in my heart as physical pain.

And it felt so good to fall into bed at night, with a stout mug of chamomile tea and a fat Elizabeth Goudge novel, knowing I’d worked as hard as I was able. Ever so much more work to be done, of course, but we’re moving forward again. And I know it wouldn’t have happened without the gift of this time, this place, and the healing spaces of solitude.

Near the end of the week, I rewarded myself with a proper high tea at the lovely 19th century hotel down the road.

Near the end of the week, I rode my bike early to the beach and watched the tide come in. There, alone in the warm sunshine, with the surf pounding in my ears and lapping almost to where I stood, I heard at last the water music that Kreeft was talking about, that endless song which God breathed into His sea, that one lullaby that never grows old:


A Month by the Sea: Creating Silence

Monday, September 8th, 2014

“The present state of the world, the whole of life, is diseased. If I were a doctor and were asked for my advice, I would reply, “Create silence! Bring men to silence. The Word of God cannot be heard in the noisy world of today. Create silence.

~Soren Kierkegaard

My husband and my Lord, in company with the kindest of house-sitters, have conspired to give me an inestimable gift: a month on my beloved jewel of an island. A whole month to write and read and work and dream; to recover a bit from an intense season and recalibrate my inner compass. A month of quiet. We’re ensconced in our Silver Girl under a canopy of moss-clad trees, a brisk little bike ride from our favorite beach on earth. The bookshelf is crammed with carefully selected titles (both new friends and old loves), the galley is stuffed with comestibles, and my dear Brown Betty teapot is on constant duty. We both have clearly marked goals for this time, Philip and I, ambitions towards which want to point this arrow of golden hours. And when the day’s work is done (or when one needs an occasional day-dreamy pause), there are inexhaustible beauties upon which to feast the eyes and the soul: vistas of endless marshland, ever a-teem with the changing life of the tides; sunsets that spill over this green land like an upturned cup of golden wine; long, grey colonnades of live oaks, whose ancient boughs bear the graveclothes of Spanish moss and the mystic, living parable of resurrection fern.

And, of course, and always—the sea.

Bonnie Blue, for one, has definitively made up her mind to be a sea dog. We taught her to swim in the ocean back in May, and at first sight of it last week she took off at a gallop, leaping and yipping for joy. Her exuberance is contagious, rekindling a childlike sense of play that reminds me who I am in a most elemental sense: a child of God. “The sea is a fountain of youth,” said Peter Kreeft with characteristic incision. “Only the child within us can hear the music of the sea.” I heard it the other night as I’ve not heard it in ages, having been lured by Bonnie into a moonlit swim. Picture this: a radiant moonrise in a sapphire sky, scattering the sea with diamonds and turning the sand to silver. Not a sound in the world but the wind and the waves and the music of our own laughter, while beyond that enchanted space of shining water, a darkness and silence so deep it seemed to hold us suspended in time. And in the midst of all that magic, Bonnie Blue bounding and swimming between us like a deliriously happy otter. I’m telling you, there’s little generosity in the world equal to that of a dog sharing it’s own joy. Our Bonnie’s been extravagant with hers, and we’re utterly delighted. And so very grateful.

So, my goal this month is to finish the first draft of my novel, a project I mention to just about everyone I meet as a means of slaying self-consciousness and creating an ever-widening circle of accountability (into which I welcome each one of you). I confess, It’s been a difficult shock the past couple of years to realize that this writing life doesn’t get easier, but harder. I feel like everything I’ve written of late has been wrung out of a great travail—and that it shows. My words feel clunky, ill-fitting. It’s been months since I’ve penned anything I was remotely pleased with, much less anything that’s come without strain; so thickly has the fog settled into the creative spaces of my heart that I’m sorely tempted to doubt those spaces exist at all. I’ve wondered in my darker moments if I’ve said everything I had to say. I’ve wrestled off the bête noire hissing between my ears that I’ve never had anything to say in the first place.

I’ve sought my Hidden Spring—and found it dry.

Before we came down here, I spent some time reflecting in my journal about what I was seeking in this time by the sea, what I was hoping not only to accomplish, but to recover. I was reminded of Thomas Kelly’s “recreating silences,” those deep places of transfigured life from which all true creativity emerges. I remembered the solemn charge of Kierkegaard to create silence: prize it, fight for it, win it at any cost to reputation or image or so-called productivity. He doesn’t say to seek it—he says to make it, as solemnly and faithfully as one might make any work of true art. I decided then and there that I was going to make silence a part of my life here this month in way that I’ve never done before. And unprecedented experiment in quiet.

Accordingly, I seized the first opportunity after we arrived to take an early bike ride to the shore. The sky was a mounting castle-scape of clouds, pillared and turreted, dark and light broken by serene patches of blue, and when the newly risen sun broke between them, it turned the sea below to a sheet of molten gold. It was all so arrestingly, awesomely beautiful, I couldn’t help but think it was the kind of morning on which Christ might return. I propped my bike against a washed up piling, spread my blanket on the hard-packed sand, and commenced to “sit and stare:” to my left, the sea and all that glory of light and shadow; to my right, a startlingly green stand of pines; and before me, the full vista of the beach, a primal forest of twisted tree forms the sea has claimed, the wind has writhed into fantastical shapes, and the sun has whitened to a bleached silvery grey.

I was determined to sit for one hour remembering what silence sounded like, keen to the life around me without contributing any of my own noise—even mental noise, which can be of the very worst sort. Ten minutes in, however, it started to drizzle. I smiled, feeling very philosophical over my imperviousness to a little shower. Then it started to rain, and I tucked my Bible and my phone up under my legs as a precaution. Then it started to pour, and I was tempted to flee, but for the fact of the aforementioned Bible and phone. So, I sat still, gently opening all my senses to what it meant to be caught in a rainstorm on the beach. I savored the icy little drops, stinging my soul and body awake. I noticed the clean-washed scent of rain, mingled with the salt of the sea that summoned a nostalgia I could hardly name. I paid close heed to the way the rain turned the sea and the sky to a misty, uniform grey, and how a sudden rift in the roiling clouds would ignite the bare trees down the beach like the gilding of a fairy’s wand.

I shared the beach with one solitary gull who stood at the water’s edge looking out to sea as if seeing something my eyes weren’t trained for, and a scuttling ghost crab who seemed utterly unmindful of the weather. And as I cycled back down the beach after both the storm and my hour had passed, I was accompanied by four magnificent ospreys, lighting on and wheeling from the heights of dead trees, just exactly as if we were all part of some solemn, silent procession.

I remembered, then, in that wordless place, what the child inside of me has always known: namely, that it’s not so much an excess of care that contributes to a meager inner life, as an absence of prayer and deep, silent communion with God. Inquiring quietly of my own heart, I realized that not only has it been months since I’ve had any real joy in writing, it’s been months since I’ve had any real delight in God’s presence. My prayers have less been conversations and more emergency requests. But one cannot dwell in emergency; resources are exhausted and reserves run dry. And, of course, in that light, I could see the obvious: the Hidden Spring wasn’t dry—it was choked. Those same unavoidable realities of human life that threatened the good seed in the parable of the sower can clog up the deep source from which our Living Water is drawn.

To be soothed down into stillness once more has become the theme of this month for me. To think of one thing at a time, and not twenty-five (how muddled I’ve become with too many words and too many cares!), to let silence and beauty and the Word of God have their ancient work on me—these are the great ambitions of my heart. I still have every intention of finishing my novel. But nothing is more important than recovering that innocence of intimacy with God that’s been buried under a mound of pragmatic, dutiful doing.

I will hear what The Lord God is saying: for He will speak peace to His people, and to His saints: only let them not return to folly.

It’s nothing short of folly to pound away after a vocation without drawing from the wells of salvation. How sweetly He reminds us, though, wooing our souls by every means–from the effortless flight of a bird, to the love song of the sea, to the stormy hunger in our own hearts.

The sea heals us by helping us learn to listen…silence is requisite.
~Peter Kreeft


Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

Two weeks ago I was 13 miles out at sea, at the helm of a 37-foot sloop named It’s About Time (I couldn’t agree more). Under fair skies and in the grip of a fresh breeze, it was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. Even the faint swirl of seasickness felt like a rite of passage (they tell me it fades–in the meantime, half a dramamine and an ice cold Coca Cola did the trick). When Philip and I stepped down onto the dock at the end of the day, I’d swear we had a salty cast to our gait—and that not only because we’d been on the water since nine o’clock that morning.

I’d told him when he’d asked: I want to turn 40 on a boat.

Not just any boat, mind you. A white-winged bird; a bateau à voile. A sailboat.

The sea has had our hearts for years and years—for always, really, for I believe we are born with such essential longings—and sailing has been an inevitable, albeit heretofore unattainable answer to that call. I’ve said there were three things I wanted to do before I turned 40: I wanted to write a book, I wanted to become fluent in French, and I wanted to learn to sail. (I also wanted to get my ears pierced, which I did, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.) My novel is still in draft stage, but my little Poesy is getting ready to make her appearance in the world. And while the most generous assessment would not stretch to call me fluent, twice this summer Philip and I have sat down for drinks and conversation en français with complete strangers whom we’d overheard speaking French—a charming Québécois couple, and the most delightful party of Parisians who corrected my mistakes with smiles and taught me the method of exchanging proper bisous in parting. (Something tells me I’ll meet those lovely folks again some day.)

As far as sailing goes, last summer we took the plunge and signed up for a basic keelboat certification course. And this summer, we were delighted to discover that the next course we’d require, Coastal Cruising 103, just happened to fall on my birthday weekend. I really could turn 40 on a boat! And not only that—I could step off that boat certified to sail our own vessel in blue water someday. The vessel in question is still a rather dim-edged dream: our dinner conversations these days center around essential ideas like sloop or ketch? and centerboard or fixed keel? And, of course, we’ll require plenty of cockpit and cabin room for an exuberant Aussie pup. Bonnie as yet has no idea what we’re talking about, but I have every reason to think that in the not-too-distant future the words, Let’s go sailing! will have as much effect on that eager heart of hers as the oft-repeated, Let’s go Airstreaming!

As we’re haunting sailing forums and scouring boat listings, I keep encountering a word that grabs my heart, and not only in relation to sailboats: nimble. It’s highest praise for a sailing vessel—no matter how much teak you’ve got in the cabin and whether the winches are self-tailing or not, you want a boat that’s going to respond gracefully to all that the helmsman asks of her. A cutter sitting quietly in its slip at the marina can be a thing of beauty, of course, but that’s not what a sailboat’s made for. It’s made for the open seas and that legendary dance with the wind and the water. It’s made for rakish maneuvers and breathtaking heels that send the white spray cresting up over her decks. A nimble boat with a capable hand at the wheel is like a bird in flight. It’s a poem; it’s a love song in motion. And for those lucky enough to be aboard, it’s pure joy.

I want a nimble sailboat. But more than that, I want to be a nimble sailboat. I’ve shared before the conviction I’ve finally given myself permission to own: namely, that in a world of determined steel trawlers and blindingly fast motorboats, my personality is imaged more accurately in the unapologetic sensitivity of a sailboat. I don’t have to be sophisticated, or brilliant, or even, as Anne Shirley would say, angelically good (thank the good Lord for that—and I mean that with all my heart!). But I do want to be responsive to the winds of His spirit in my sails, keen to the sea changes that He’s brewing in my own heart. Just this past week I caught the tenderest whisper: Don’t resent your own restlessness, child. Lean into it. Look for its gifts. Find the stars.

I can say in all honesty that the prospect of turning 40, while unbelievable in some respects, has been one of excitement tinged with magic. I’ve seen too many people I admire dance into their forties with grace and flair to be anything but enchanted (and a little bit relieved) at the idea of a brand-new decade. And I have it on good authority that one of the best things about getting older is caring less and less what other people think of you–which is really the only place from which to love people, of course. I want to leave self-consciousness at the door of this decade; I don’t want its gleaming halls to be sullied with the muddy footprints of my own insecurities. And I think I’m finally ready to allow myself to be a work in progress, to celebrate the fact that God in His mercy has allowed so many false ideas I’d picked up along the way to be dashed—but with equal mercy He’s kept my ideals intact. Sometimes I feel closer to 17 than halfway to 80, which is nothing short of miracle, considering the harsh realities this world’s only too willing too dish up from sunrise to sunset. But the triumvirate romance of Beauty, Truth and Goodness has my heart as much as it ever did. I can say this with no illusions, for there have been seasons over the past twenty years—hours, days, weeks, months—in which I felt I was clinging to these holy Transcendentals in the dark with my eyes shut fast against things that claimed to be more real, and I know now the holding power to have been nothing less radiant than the prayers of the saints (sometimes praying for me without even knowing why) and the courage put into me by honest souls who had stared down darkness with an inextinguishable Light in their eyes.

It’s that Light alone that makes me dare to dream and keep dreaming. To be sure, my life is quite different in many ways than what I imagined it would look like at this point twenty—even ten—years ago. But I wouldn’t change a thing—I’m breathless with the beauty of what God has done. For while there are dreams that will be with me for life, there are others that have quietly given way to new dreams, vistas I hadn’t dared to imagine were really open to me. I wrote in my journal the day after my birthday: part of being nimble means not getting mired emotionally in things I can’t control. It means flexibility, living light; it means opening my hands, not only to let go, but to receive.

One thing that has been dropped into my hands recently is a dream I’ve cherished for so long I can hardly name the moment it was born—perhaps it was reading Surprised by Joy as a teenager, or the first time I stood at the top of St. Mary the Virgin in my early twenties, gazing out over a pinnacled landscape of dreaming spires. But come October, I commence undergraduate studies in English Literature and Creative Writing through Oxford University. It’s a tremendous opportunity, consisting of a combination of both online and in-Oxford courses over the next few years (so we’ll be making some hops across the Pond! :) ), and I am dizzy with gratitude (to quote Anne again). Philip teases that I’m as excited over the prospect of a Bod card as I am over my actual place in the course, and there’s some truth to that—after all, access to one of the most famous libraries in the world is staggering in its own right. But I’m very happy and excited, and thankful that I have the chance to follow this dream at this point in my life. (There were a lot of reasons why I didn’t go to college at 18—and a lot of reasons I’m going now. Perhaps I’ll write more about that at some point.)

I can hardly wait for October. In the meantime, I’m working on my novel every day, determined to have that first draft DONE before my classes start. And I’m working away on Poesy (look for an update on that front in the near future). Philip and I are enjoying our animals and reading Harry Potter together (for the first time—can you believe it?). And, of course, looking at sailboats. (I’ll keep you posted on that front, too. Anyone have an early 70’s Formosa or Cheoy Lee in reasonably good shape they’re wanting to let go of for a song? ;) )


My 40th birthday was pure gift from start to finish, a shining thing I’ll treasure among my very finest gems: in the morning we passed our sailing exam; in the afternoon we sped a few miles down the coast to our favorite hotel on our favorite island; and in the evening we danced the night away to the music of one of the best jazz quartets this side of the 1940’s. I can’t think of a lovelier way to twirl into my fifth decade on this broken but beautiful old earth of ours.

Here’s, Hail! To the rest of the road!

O, Cavalier!

Monday, August 4th, 2014

Today marks yet another important date: it is the 100th birthday of Sheldon Vanauken, author of my favorite book of all time, A Severe Mercy. Having honored dear Davy with a sonnet on her illustrious centennial, I could not bear to let this day pass without acknowledging our great chum Van in like manner (though his gift is in the form of a bit of free verse). Reading A Severe Mercy not only incited an absolute volcanic eruption of latent longing and desire in my life, it breathed a loving affirmation that at once broke my heart and healed it. And though our copy has been nearly read to pieces over the years, I cannot so much as crack the cover without a burning rush of that original joy. This poem refers to Van’s final and ultimate surrender to Christ, some twenty years after Davy’s death, a “return to the Obedience” which led to the writing of this immortal book.

Happy Birthday, Van. We owe you the greatest debt. Look forward to telling you all about it over a heavenly pint someday.


O, Cavalier!

When once that gallant head went down
In fealty unforsworn,
And rebel heart consigned to Mercy’s cause,
Love’s triumph shook the earth for such proud prize
And heaven stooped to smile.

Knighted with a poet’s sword,
Branded by a lover’s seal,
The beauty of your breaking pierced the world.

August 4, 2014

A Hail

Friday, July 25th, 2014

Davy Vanauken

On this day 100 years ago, something happened that would dramatically impact the course of my life: Jean Palmer Davis was born, known more intimately to the world as Davy Vanauken, beloved wife and heroine of Sheldon Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy. I’ve written elsewhere of that book’s place in my heart, and Philip and I candidly consider Van and Davy some of our dearest friends. Their story of a Christ-invaded love challenged us deeply; their longing for a ‘timefull’ life has leant courage to many of our own dreams as a couple. But on this day, I want to single Davy out and honor her. From my first encounter with her via the pages of her husband’s book, I recognized a kindred soul. Her gaiety, her courage, her wayfaring heart all shone out in living color. I quickened to our common love for England, her appreciation of a good cup of Darjeeling and a country drive under a Virginia sky; I admired the plucky spirit of her sailboat days, and the way she interpreted important experiences in her life through painting. Davy was born six years after one of my grandmothers, and six years before the other, but I’ve never thought of her as anything but a contemporary comrade–and a very beloved one, at that.

Though Davy’s always in my heart, all this past year I’ve held the thought of her poignantly close. She was my age when she found out she was ill, a month out from her 40th birthday. And six months later she was dead. A lamp put out in its prime; a life so full of living cut short by dark providence. But no life is so expendable in the Kingdom’s accounting. Davy is, of course: she lives, not only in Van’s book, but at home in the timelessness they sought so earnestly together in life. And she lives in the witness of untold thousands whose lives were touched by the radiance of her love: for Christ, for her husband, and for the world. I’m not the only one who can say that their life is more because Davy lived, or that the thought of her lends courage to live a life of extravagant love. But I am one of them, and it’s a fact for which I consider myself most supremely blessed.

My friendship with Davy has made my life more beautiful than it would have been without her. She both calls me higher in devotion to Christ and sends me lower in practical application of it. She showed me the Low Door through which imperfect human attempts at love must pass in order to reach the Wonderland-like refinement of Love itself. I keep a picture of her on my writing desk, a faded image of a dark-haired girl with a cheeky smile, perched in the bosun’s chair of Gull, their 18-foot sloop, and whenever I look at it, I can almost hear her say, Be brave. Keep small enough to get through that Low Door. Let your love be big enough to change the world.

Sixty years and two days after Davy was born I made my rather red and mewling appearance on this earth. On Sunday I celebrate my 40th (!!) birthday, and I think it’s quite fitting that the festivities commence today with a coastal cruising sailing course that Philip and I signed up for back in the spring, the next step towards a dream which Van and Davy sparked with their vision of a white-winged schooner under sail.

This tribute isn’t at all what I want it to be, and the poem that follows certainly falls short of what’s in my heart. But I wanted to acknowledge such a momentous “earth time” occasion of something that, in God’s good love and mysterious ways, puts helpless chronos to shame.

Happy Birthday, beloved Davy. I’ll be toasting you in Darjeeling today.

Under the Mercy,


Ave, Davy! Hail, sweet sister! Your bright
Brave spirit breathes a warmth unchilled through years
Of old earth-time, and death’s not dared your light
To dim. By Mercy’s art your star swung near
To mine across an epoch’s swarthy bowl
And flung a spark of glory, holy fire,
Enkindling kindred shining in my soul.
So kindly did that ember sear, desire
Undreamt-of blazed to life and deathly snows
Of fear dissolved. Such high Civility!–
(Your lover’s tears were turned to gems, you know.)
–And yet, o’er all I praise your Courtesy:
Undying lamp illumining Low Door
Of Love’s most noble off’ring evermore.

Wonderful Tonight

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

It’s been a busy summer, what with bookbinding and writing projects, Ivester vacation (from which we’ve just returned) and a recent 15th wedding anniversary adventure on another of our golden barrier isles (which I hope to tell you about soon!). If there’s one thing I actually love about social media, it’s getting to see glimpses and snapshots of friends’ vacations, always such a magical “time out of time” for families in this fragmented era of ours. There’s just something about the beach that brings time to a standstill in such lucid clarity–especially when you get to share it with those you love. In lieu of something new today, I thought I’d pass on a little piece I wrote for the Rabbit Room, inspired by last summer’s family vacation. I hope you’re all having a lovely summer in your part of the world and making lots of memories of your own! xx

“I think that people are the greatest fun…”
—Bryan MacLean, Alone Again, Or

I love people. Really, I do. But sometimes I don’t like them very much.

It was the last night of family vacation. We weren’t actually going home in the morning—Philip and I were heading to a neighboring island the next day for a little birthday weekend add-on. But it was the end of something: the culmination of a week of pure pleasure in a lovely house by the sea with our Ivester-variety dearest ones, and I was a little sad. The tall windows were dark; the swimming pool was a sheet of glass between the main house and the pavilioned wing in which Philip’s and my room was located; the outdoor hibachi grill, in almost constant use for a family of 13, had been cleaned for the last time and the colorful beach towels had all disappeared from the iron courtyard railings. Everyone else had already gone to bed—but I needed a bit more, an extra measure of savoring, as I always do after my very happiest times. Philip knew this, sensed it instinctively, I think, as I never seem to handle endings very well without some practical acknowledgement of my joy—even a few moments’ quiet conversation.

We sat out under the pavilion together, he and I, watching the great silver barque of a moon travel a swath of starry sky and listening to the incessant whisper and retreat of the waves on the shore below. Our house was on something of a point, near the mouth of an inlet on one hand, with a great stretch of beach on the other, so that whether the tide was in or out it always had something of the quality of a fortress. The tide was out tonight, but the beach was deserted.

“What was your favorite thing?” I asked Philip sleepily. “Tell me your best moment.”

He was silent for a moment before obliging. Then he returned the favor of the question he knew I’d been wanting him to ask me all along.

“What about you? What was your favorite thing?”

I thought about the precious week that had flown: the happy astonishment of all being together again; the glorious indolence and the thoughtful conversations and the sudden hilarity. I thought about the way the first few days of vacation always seem endless—and how suddenly you reach a point about the middle of the third day when things gather momentum, like a roller coaster cresting the big dive, and then in a blink it’s all over. I thought about watching the sun rise, and about the cache of sand dollars Philip had brought back to me from a shelling foray, and about sailing on the ocean.

I leaned back into the down cushions of my chair and dangled my leg over the side. It was an important question, and not one to be settled lightly.

“I think,” I said at length, “my favorite thing was—,”

But just at that moment, a car careened with a screech into the quiet little beach access below and what sounded like a small army of people erupted. The raucous noise of voices fell like a blow upon the gentle silence of the night, and the music of the waves and the wind in the palms was engulfed by music of another sort entirely. Thuddings and wailings crashed into my moonlit enchantment and I was properly horrified.

I sat straight up in my chair, a ramrod of indignation.

“It’s—it’s—so ugly!” I spluttered. “How could anyone—,”

I glanced over at Philip for some validation of my ire. But he was grinning, and his shoulders shook lightly with silent laughter.

“Aw, they’re just having fun,” he drawled. “It’s probably their last night, too.”

Besides, you don’t exactly own the beach, he might have added. (It’s probably a good thing that he didn’t.) But I was irked, ruffled. I listened to the retreating noise of music and voices as the party ambled off down the shore with a decidedly uncharitable smirk. It was as if two celestial bodies had swirled a little too near in their orbits, missing a collision, but unsettling the atmosphere nonetheless.

“They’d probably think your Astrud Gilberto was noise,” Philip chuckled.

A few nights later we were sitting in the lobby of my favorite hotel on earth (situated in the heart of my favorite island on earth), savoring yet another last. Tomorrow, vacation would be over in very deed. But tonight, I was all here, fully present to the beloved surroundings, the familiar noises and scents (sun-warmed wood, mostly, and furniture polish), the friendly faces that make the place so dear to us. Our favorite pianist was at the helm, cranking out jazz standards and Ray Charles favorites with rollicking abandon, and Mark, the bartender, was playfully shaking martinis to the rhythm of the music. Outside, one of those showy summer thunderstorms was blustering itself out, battering the old, wavy-paned windows with spurts of rain, making the sense of warmth and belonging within all the more keen. We sat in a quiet corner with our book, reading aloud between slices of pizza, just being happy.

After dinner, and after our pianist friend had retired to the dining room for the night, we sauntered out onto the veranda, still dripping from its late dousing, as were the great moss-hung oaks and the murmuring palms all around. All the world was dripping, in fact, fresh from its bath, and overhead, a giddy breeze was tearing the clouds from the face of the stars. There was a coolness and a newness to everything, as if July had suddenly given place to September. In the west, beyond the river, a radiant mantle of saffron kissed the earth beneath a heavy bank of thunderclouds. It was so beautiful—so mine—I could hardly bear it.

From down on the wharf, we could catch the strains of a band: electric bass, drums, guitar, vocals unnaturally warbly at this distance. But rather than marring the sacred quiet of the night, as I might have imagined in a less-exalted mood, it only enhanced it, lending a human poignancy to the scene that was almost as lovely as the cold beauty of that moon beginning to appear and that oriental breath of wind on my face, spiced with blossom and salt. This night be will over, the music seemed to urge. This summer will be over and this season in your lives will be over one day, too.

I grabbed Philip’s hand. His smile answered the question in mine, and together we hastened towards the wharf under the sodden trees. The music grew louder as we approached, along with the sound of voices—staunch souls who had braved the weather for the treat of some good, old-fashioned rock and roll. We settled at a high table near the periphery, and Philip ordered us a couple of ales. The crowd was small, mostly locals, we assumed, and the band was a familiar one from summers past. There was even a guy in the audience who could sing just like Johnny Cash (he had promised to work on “Jackson” for us once upon a time back in May) and who would join the band for a cover with very little urging. I looked around with supreme content—and with what I’m sure must have been a supremely goofy smile on my face. It was just all so right.

Now the band was playing “Fire on the Mountain” and people were dancing and clogging about—families and couples and grandmothers with young grandsons—and the whole thing filled me with such unaccountable joy I felt dizzy.

I leaned close to Philip and whispered, “I think people are just beautiful.”

“You do?” He grinned at me in the half-light.

“I do,” I avowed. “And it’s not the ale—I haven’t even tasted it yet.”

How could I put into words what I was feeling, what had suddenly possessed me with such fierce gladness? I hardly understood it myself. Now our Johnny Cash friend was singing “Folsom Prison Blues” and I had tears in my eyes, of all things; now someone requested Drivin’ and Cryin’, and I found myself singing along with a bunch of strangers to a song I had never heard before. (Yes, really.) And as the evening wore on, the thought gradually materialized that it was the wonder of the happiness human beings are capable of that had my heart in such a thrall. Happiness that had such humble requirements; happiness of such simple stuff as the wooden planks of an old wharf with the tide lapping about the pilings, and a serendipitous break in the weather, and a cover artist that could actually hit that mean low E in Folsom Prison. It filled me with wonder that one group of people could make music for another group of people and thus open a room of joy in a generally rushed and impersonal world—a place where people who didn’t even know each other could sample a shared good. It was like a great draught from a communal cup; like celestial bodies swirling near in their individual orbits, mingling some of the light and color and song of their atmospheres in passing. I felt suddenly proud—proud that these strangers and fellow humans were capable of such honest fun.

As the night dwindled down, I began to fear that each number would be the last. At length, a couple at a nearby table shouted out, “Clapton!” during a pause between sets, and something told me that this would be the finale. The climax of a tiny human drama played out on a dot on the map at a weathered wharf under the stars. Sure enough, at the very opening bars of “Wonderful Tonight,” every single person rose to their feet, taking some other loved person by the hand. The wharf became a dance floor as couples swayed to and fro in one another’s arms, a silent celebration of life’s sweetest mystery. I smiled radiantly up at Philip through my happy tears. Perhaps, after all, this enormous-hearted husband of mine is wearing off on me.

When the band was done, we all ambled off the wharf together. I kept stealing shy smiles at our fellow patrons (I’m sure they thought I was a bit odd) and waved goodbye to Johnny Cash. These people weren’t strangers any more—not to me. We had been through something tremendous together—at least, that’s how I saw it. We had tasted happiness as a body, and that can never be an unremarkable thing.

“God bless them,” I prayed silently, with a great flush of blinding love that nearly took my breath. “God bless them all.”

And then I thought of the hapless souls on the beach a few nights previous, with their boom box and noisy voices, as utterly unconscious of my ire as these people on the wharf were of my sudden and unlooked-for love.

I twisted my mouth in a wry smile.

“Oh, God,” I whispered, “bless them—bless them, too.”

Sweet Summer

Monday, May 26th, 2014

And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer. ~F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

We came home last Sunday from three weeks away to find the yard and pastures clothed in such an exuberance of green it almost hurt to look at them, particularly when a-dazzle with the golden light of a late May sun. Three weeks ago, we had left a timid spring behind, all pale leaves and misty showers, and we had come back to—Summer. My heart hailed it with a comrade’s joy. I cherish all of the seasons in their turn, but in recent years I’ve rekindled my childhood love affair with summer. There’s such an Eden-like quality to these young days of warmth and new growth, an innocence about the long twilights and dew-wet dawns that awakens some of my most elemental longings and visions. With the paring down of the outward life in summertime comes a ritualistic inspection of my inner world—I believe that Philip and I have more important conversations about what we want to do with our lives in the summer than any other time of the year. We’re having those conversations now, leaning into the luxury of these long afternoons, scanning the prospect of the season ahead (literally and figuratively) from this last green hill of May.

It’s been a satisfying spring, deeply clarifying in its own right. I’ve been quietly hammering away at some long-held goals, wondering how the days can slip by so quickly under the glad burden of hard work. And I’ve thrown my cap over a couple of fences, one academic and one literary (I’ll let you know what comes of either…). In the bookshop, Poesy is coming along. It’s been such an amazing thing to see my own words forming into a book beneath my own hands. As each and every page has to be folded separately by hand, you can imagine what an intimate and contemplative task it’s been. There are boxes and boxes of signatures (folded components of sixteen pages) in the bookshop, ready to be hand sewn into text blocks—I am so eager to jump into this stage of the process as it’s my very favorite.

I’ve been working steadily on my novel, as well. My writing partner and I met for lunch the week before Philip and I left on our trip to discuss our latest challenge. I wandered off into an explanation of why I thought I’d commit to “hours spent at desk” as opposed to actual word count—when my wise and loving friend drew me up short. “Lanier, that’s not really working for you,” she said, leaning across the table with a knowing look beneath her cocked brow. “It’s time to get this story out.” She was exactly right, and I knew it. There is a place for day-dreamy dawdling before a blank screen—she and I both know such times are never wasted. But when dawdling becomes procrastination (which is just a nice word for scared-out-of-my-mind), it’s a real problem. I realized in that moment that I wasn’t progressing with my book for the simple reason that I was afraid I would ruin it by writing it. Feels good to name such things, and to have another writer pat your arm knowingly and tell you to get back to work. She set the bar at 800 words per day—which I happily exceeded during our weeks away, in a burst of recklessly awful first draft material I’d die if anyone set eyes on. ;) But that’s what the first draft is for! Much as I love my characters and think I know their story, I won’t know anything till I get all my own ideas out of the way. It’s only then that this tale (and its people) can take me where it wants to go. That’s the real magic, of course. Let’s hope I can keep up the momentum now that we’re home again…

Lastly, I’m excited to announce that I (finally) have a few new Elizabeth Goudge titles in the bookshop: a lovely copy of Gentian Hill, the beautiful Devonshire tale set during the Napoleonic wars; two copies of the hard-to-find God So Loved the World, which is Goudge’s exquisite telling of the life of Christ; and the anthology A Book of Comfort, containing some of her most dearly loved poems, quotes and prayers for “the difficulties and challenges of life.” (I’ve certainly put some wear on my own personal copy of that latter.) You can find them here.

I feel like this is the breeziest of updates on a series of intensely full and challenging and exciting months. But I want to wish all of you the very happiest entrance into this burgeoning season, and to say that I hope this summer nurtures your soul with the warmth of youth and all the lustre of undying things. Blessings and Peace to you, friends. Thank you so much for coming by. You make me brave just by being there.

Under the Mercy,


Lines for the first of May

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

for Rachel, who knows

The choristers sang at dawn in Oxfordtown, birdnotes chiming from tower’d nest
of stone above the mink-brown Cher. I have never heard them do it
but by the heart’s hard listening, that fancy-flight of longing
that makes an actuality of the imagined, till the dream is more real
than the real. And while I dreamed an inexorable sea away, they sang,
white robes ruffled like fledgling feathers breathed upon by auroral breezes,
round mouths wide to drink in all that dew of blushing morn and maiden
May. The earth is glad once more—their sweet song rouses it with a shout!
       And I awake, dispossessed of all that happy dream.

My morning broods, welling tears of unshed rain, while the green world waits,
shuddering at one long, low sob of thunder. Yet the wild roses breathe out
a holy incense, flouncing their frills over western hedges and showering a veil
of bridal white from the low-sweeping pines. In the breathless orthodoxy
of this newborn day that first, wild, young madness of honeysuckle plies
an arrow through my awakened heart. And at evening, we sit beneath
a windswept sky, remembering how the sun kindled her honeyed face and how the rain
silvered the hoary fretwork of her spires. “To England,” he says, lifting a glass of stars,
       summer wine enflamed by one glance of that great light

Love Begets

Monday, March 31st, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Star Dipper

Thursday, March 20th, 2014

I want to begin by saying a warm thank you for the outpouring of excitement and encouragement attendant upon the announcement of my book earlier this week. If it weren’t for all of you, I wouldn’t have had the courage to let it out into the world. Thank you for celebrating this happy milestone with me, and for sharing the journey. You really can’t know what it means. I am so grateful.

The following is an excerpt from a talk I gave at Hutchmoot last October, and I wanted to share it here as both a witness to you and a reminder to myself of how I’ve grown to see my calling as a writer. I know I’m entrusting it to kindred hearts in this place. Again, my friends–thank you.

Last August I was a slump. It had been one of the hardest seasons of my life, and I was living through the three remaining weeks of exile before my husband and I traveled to the coast, to an island that is my spiritual home if there ever was one. I was treading water, really. And in a total funk with my writing. Anyway, before we went I was sitting in the vet’s office with one of my dogs or cats—I can’t remember who now—and I pulled up Sarah Clarkson’s blog on my phone. (In case you didn’t know, Sarah Clarkson is one of my favorite people on the face of this earth) I started to read her latest post, a beautiful and heartfelt piece (of course!) written from Scotland where she’d journeyed on a writing trip. (Do read the piece—it’s called “Write the Rainbow.”) She was staying with this lovely, saintly, Goudge-like old woman, and while she was there, Sarah read the woman’s memoir, a chronicle of adventuresome devotion. One afternoon, in a tumult of inner questions, Sarah set off on a long walk. Remembering how Venetia (isn’t that a lovely name?) wrote in her book that, occasionally, when she really needed guidance, God had given her mental signposts in the way of pictures or images or stories, Sarah made bold to pray for the same thing: a picture of what she was to do for Him, of what her writing life looked like. In Sarah’s own words:

Instantly, I do mean instantly, a Millais painting came to my thought. It has long enchanted me for its vivid, startling image—that of a blind young girl sitting amidst a glory of a golden field with two rainbows like stairways to heaven behind her. Not a bit of it can she see. But in that painting, a small child sits next to the blind girl, peeking out from under her cloak, neck craned in awe at the glory, telling the blind one of all the beauty. And I knew in that image that my task, as a soul, but particularly as a writer, is to be that child.

Write the rainbow, God told her. Tell this broken world of things they cannot see…

I read that and my heart burned with kindred longings. But I was also mad. Sarah was having all the adventures and, besides, she’s a better writer, so, of course, God would give her a noble charge like that! But the notion of God speaking in pictures lingered, and I made up my mind to pray about it just as soon as we got back to the coast and I had my mind and heart still again.

Accordingly, I survived the intervening weeks. And then, miraculously, we were there again on our island. One morning—I think it was the first, I was so eager—I got up quite early and went for a solitary walk along the marsh. I optimistically took my little notebook, on the off chance that I “got something.” And away I sauntered, under the summer trees, into the golden stillness and warmth of a quiet August morning. When I got to the farthest bench on the path, I sat down and looked up into the live oaks above my head.

“All right, God,” I said. “I read about how You spoke to Sarah, how You gave her a picture of what it is You want her to do. You gave her an image of her writing that was unmistakable and it was very precious to her.” Silence for a moment as I gathered courage. “I’d like to ask that You would do the same for me. I’d like a picture, please—I’d like an image of what You want to do with my writing, of what my work looks like, if anything.” More silence, and in a kind of frantic despair, I whispered, “I mean, maybe You love Sarah more than You love me—I mean, I would, if I were You—”

At that moment—I am not kidding—I was interrupted by such a gust of wind that my mouth literally dropped open. It came out of nowhere and roared through the tree over my head, sending leaves skittering from the branches in frightened little shivers. It was not so much angry as chiding—I felt reproved by it, and in the instant that it subsided, the cicadas, which had been maintaining a low, steady hum (so low and steady, in fact, as not to be noticeable) suddenly raised their pitch, and with it, their volume to a high, insistent whine, for all the world as though they, too, were protesting my petulance. It was almost deafening for a moment or two.

After it subsided, I sat in a chastened quiet.

“I’d like a picture, please,” I murmured, humbled.

Nothing came. My mind was a jumble of naught. I knew that Philip was waiting for me for breakfast, so up I got, trying not to feel discouraged. God does not always answer, of course, and when He doesn’t . . .

As I walked along back to the hotel, smiling intentionally at the beauty around me, clutching my little notebook tightly, a picture flickered into my mind: wavered, faded, materialized. And then it faded again, as I dismissed it with a smirk. Nothing more than a picture from one of my childhood books. One of my favorites, in fact, but obviously so firmly entrenched in my memory that my brain, hunting feverishly, had found it without effort. Oh well. God doesn’t have to speak to me the way He speaks to Sarah and to the saintly Scottish lady . . .

It never really occurred to me to wonder why that image, out of literally billions that must inhabit my brain. Especially when I had not seen it, or so much as thought of it in years. I can be kind of dumb that way, I guess. At any rate, a couple of weeks later I was sitting at my desk, grinding out my Hutchmoot talks—at great pain and effort, I might add. I was feeling like such a fake, a failure, a poser, a fraud . . . and I just laid my head down on my desk in complete and utter defeat.

“I just can’t do this, Lord,” I told Him. “I’m not one of these brilliant souls and I don’t know why I’m speaking at Hutchmoot and I don’t even know why I’m on The Rabbit Room…”

That kind of thing. And as I moaned and mullygrubbed, that same picture from the island morning came back into my mind. As at an audible charge, I immediately got up and went downstairs to the bookcase. I knew right where it was: The Tasha Tudor Bedtime Book, one of my all-time favorites as a little girl. I turned to the well-known page with a trembling heart (and trembling hand), and stared at the illustration of “The Star Dipper.” It was just as I remembered it: the little cottage, the girl and her mother gazing up into the night sky, the corgi at their feet—and above them in the warm blue, the radiant formation of the Big Dipper. I read the story again with tears in my eyes.

The tale goes that a little girl lives with her mother in a cottage at the edge of the wood. It has been a long, hot summer, and her mother is ill. Her mother sends her to the well to draw her up a dipper of water because she is so parched, but when the little girl endeavors to do this, she discovers that the well is dry. Undaunted, she sets out with her dipper into the dark night, certain of finding a hidden spring she knows of in the wood, the waters of which run cool and clear. Off she goes—but it is a dark night and the way is very difficult. Much more difficult than she had anticipated. It is so difficult that she fears again and again she has lost her way. The branches tear at her face and her dress, and the stones cut her feet. She is near despair, but the thought of her mother and her great thirst drives her onwards. At last she comes out into a little clearing and there it is: the Hidden Spring. With joy she fills her tin dipper with the crystal water, thinking what healing it will be to her mother. Immediately, she proceeds to return the way whence she came, but somehow it’s not quite as dark. The lowly dipper glows with a faint light, just enough to guide her way. As she goes, she encounters an old man, bent with years. He begs a drink of her from her dipper, the night is so hot and the springs are all dry. Quickly reasoning that there is enough for her dear mother and enough for the poor old gentleman, the girl lowers her dipper that the man might have a drink. The water is so pure and cold that he is revived at once, and thanks her with blessings. Resuming her passage through the wood, the little girl notices that there is even more light than before. “Could it be that the moon has risen?” she wonders. But, no—it is the light of her dipper, no longer tin, but shining silver in the dark night. Next she encounters a little dog, so tired and weary it can hardly beg, its tongue hanging out of its mouth for thirst. Without a word or a hesitation, the girl kneels and allows the dog to lap from her dipper, wherein she is thanked accordingly, as only doggies can do (and, to surmise from the illustration, he follows her home, which makes my heart glad, of course!). As she once more resumes her homeward journey, the little girl is amazed at the brightness shed across her path, for her dipper, no longer silver, has turned to a brilliant gold that lights her way. When she reaches her own cottage, she rushes in to her mother’s bedside and holds the golden dipper to her lips. The mother drinks with grateful alacrity, and the water is so cool, so refreshing and healing, that she feels well at once. The little girl sets the dipper on the table while she tells her mother of her adventures, but as she does, a kaleidoscope of light and color begins to flash about the room, like the sparkle of gems, and, suddenly, the once humble dipper flies out the window and shoots up into the night sky, no longer an earthly dipper at all, but a heavenly one, made of diamonds, so that all who saw it would remember the little girl’s hard passage through the dark wood and the loving gift she found there, bestowed with such generosity to all she met.

Before I was done with the story, I knew what God was saying to me. I knew that He wanted me to write and keep writing. And I knew what He wanted me to do with my writing, in one of the clearest, tenderest moments of insight I have ever had:

Fight your way through the Dark Wood. Find the Hidden Spring. And bring back the Sacred Water you find there for the good of all.

Find the Hidden Spring.

Since that time, the image of the Hidden Spring has given me courage again and again to just keep doing this thing—to make it my sacred charge and pilgrimage, whether a living soul validates it or not. This work is not of me—this great Thirst is not mine to quench. That doesn’t mean that the Dark Wood is not terrifying at times. But that gives me strength, even when I’m plunging through it—to know that the Spring is there and that it flows with the original Creative Love that set the stars in the heavens and calls them each by name. It’s a deep, bone-level call, at once rigorous and refreshing. I did not make the Spring; I do not fill it with water. But it’s there. And Love will show me the way to it. I can count on that. Mine is only to do as I’ve been charged and leave the matter to God.

"Find the Hidden Spring"