Some recipes and a winner!

Friday, February 12th, 2016

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It is my pleasure to announce the winner of the drawing for a copy of Sally and Sarah Clarkson’s new book The Lifegiving Home: Linda, who describes home as a shelter of “grace-oriented” relationship (what a beautiful image!). Linda, if you will send me your mailing address via the secure Contact form, I will dispatch this wonderful book without delay!

How I wish I could send a copy to every one of you! And I want to thank you for such wonderful replies to my question: What is the one thing about your place on earth that most speaks “home” to you? I realized as I started to consider the matter myself, just how difficult of a question I’d asked! But upon reflection, I think I would have to say that candlelight and firelight flickering over the faces of people I love is home to me—always has been and always will be.

I do urge you to read through the comments, if you haven’t already. I was touched and inspired by the thoughtfulness everyone brought to this question. So many friendly glimpses into the sacred spaces of your homes. It truly warmed my heart.

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And, as promised in my afternoon tea post yesterday, here are a few simple suggestions for making any cup of tea a special occasion:

We are indebted to the British for many things in this world, not the least of which is their glorious clotted cream. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to procure in this country, so when the real thing can’t be had, I content myself with this easy substitute. Granted, it’s not nearly as divine as the original, but it will exalt a humble scone to a thing of decadence:

Mock Devonshire Cream:

Whip ½ cup heavy cream with 2 Tablespoons powdered sugar till stiff peaks form. Then gently fold in ½ cup sour cream. Serve generously* with warm scones or tea biscuits, and, if desired, strawberry jam or lemon curd.

I love finger sandwiches at teatime: they are easy to prepare ahead of time, and a nice selection can be provided for your guests. Here are a few of my favorites:

Cream cheese and olive:

Finely chop about a cup of manzanilla olives with pimentos and blend with 8 ounces cream cheese. Spread onto white or wheat bread from which the crusts have been removed and the slices cut in triangle ‘points.’ Top with another point. (These are especially pretty at Christmas, with all the red and green, but I love them any time of year.)

Cream cheese and pineapple:

Prepare the same as for cream cheese and olive, only add 2/3 cup finely chopped pineapple to the cream cheese in place of the olives. If you are using canned pineapple, be sure to drain before mixing with the cream cheese. (These sandwiches are best on white bread, in my opinion.)

And, finally, one of the simplest and most time-honored of tea treats is good, old-fashioned Scottish shortbread, which can be whipped up at a moment’s notice. You can add any manner of flavorings, from dried cranberries and spices in the winter, to lemon peel or a dash of lavender in the summer. But I like it best plain:

 

Scottish Shortbread:

1 pound butter
6 cups flour
1 ½ cups sugar
½ cup cornstarch

Soften the butter in a large bowl, then sift the dry ingredients over it and mix well with your hands. Keep working the mixture until all is incorporated and nothing is sticking to the sides of the bowl. Place the dough on a cookie sheet and pat into a disk about ½ inch thick. Using a fork, prick a pattern of small wedges, radiating out from the center. Bake at 350 degrees until the edges start to brown, about 30 minutes. Break the shortbread on the pricked lines and sprinkle with granulated sugar before serving.

I hope that you all have a lovely Valentine’s weekend, and perhaps even a pause for a proper cup of tea! :)

*I mean that. 😉

photo credit: Mark Geil

The Pleasures of Tea

Thursday, February 11th, 2016

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photo credit: Mark Geil

I confess, I find it difficult to comprehend the mindset which relegates the consumption of hot tea to cold weather. Call it an addiction, but I down my daily quota year-round, whether, like today, I’m cozy by the fire with flurries flying outside, or dewy-faced on the front porch in the middle of July. My European friends assure me I’m not alone, and that the drinking of hot beverages on a sweltering day actually helps your body work harder to cool itself off (or something like that). But the fact is, afternoon tea is a civility I’m just not willing to dispense with, whatever the calendar says.

I won’t attempt to deny the exquisite comfort of tea in the bleak midwinter, however. There are few pleasures equal to that of wrapping your hands around a warm cuppa on a cold day. And while I drink tea out of habit (brewed in my Brown Betty pot and sipped from a Blue Willow teacup, bien sûr!), it does not in the least diminish my sense of connection to a ritual I value, not only for its social uses, but its historical tradition.

My friends and I treat the taking of tea together with great solemnity, employing good china and linen napkins for our regular gatherings, and on occasions of state, I will even crack out the exquisite Regency-era tea set I bought in England. (“This is for when the vicar comes to call,” the seller told me as he wrapped it in about a thousand layers of newspaper.) That tea set is one of my treasures, not only for the memories associated with it (even the parking ticket we got in Mayfair while we were attempting to ship it home is colored with a haze of fondness), but for the way it makes a moment feel like part of a long and interesting story. I never take up one of those delicate cups that I don’t sit a little straighter in my chair, measure my words a bit more carefully. One doesn’t talk twaddle, or leave sentences to languish unfinished over such a tea cup. I love the deep saucers, proportioned for sipping, and the impenetrable richness of cobalt blue fired under its glaze. I love the massive sugar bowl, rivaling even the furbelowed tea pot, and the fact that the slop bowl is every bit as beautiful as the rest of the set. But best of all, I love the fact that such art was created in the name of a quotidian ritual. While there’s little doubt in my mind that the Regency lady who first sipped tea from this set with her friends was probably not the one doing the washing up afterwards, there’s every reason to suppose—from the long and loving romance of the British with their tea—that this set was in constant use. (However did it come down to me intact? My Regency lady must have had a pearl of a scullery maid!) In an era of Styrofoam and Starbucks, it is extraordinary what a little simmering liquid in a bit of bone china can do to soothe the soul back into all that is yet lovely and gentle and gracious about life.

 the Regency tea set

the Regency tea set

This is not to deny the charm of mismatched cups and a sturdy, workaday pot, however. That’s just the beauty of tea: it can be as formal or as casual as one desires; the impromptu get-togethers at my kitchen table are just as dear in their own right as the planned gatherings in which that formidable Regency set presides. Tea is the beverage of conversation, and, as such, the only really necessary requirements for a “proper tea” are devoted time and someone to share it with. Of course, one may have a technically proper tea in solitude (as opposed to what Winnie-the-Pooh calls a “Very Nearly Tea,” which, as we all know, “is one you forget about afterwards”), but it’s missing something of the lustre of the original tradition.

And to honor that tradition, it is my joy to be sharing over at the Art House America blog today on the infinite pleasures of afternoon tea:

To take tea is to receive something; it is a gift of mindfulness, gentleness and grace. To partake in company is to merge with a great tradition of civilized communion which has its version in nearly every culture on earth…

Click here to read on–I would so love for you to join me there in celebration of this most esteemed beverage!

And I will be back tomorrow with a couple of my favorite teatime recipes, in addition to announcing the winner of the drawing for The Lifegiving Home.

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The Lifegiving Home: a review

Friday, February 5th, 2016

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The rain was coursing in rivulets down the windows of my den, pounding on the roof with a rhythm that only emphasized the coziness within. Sarah Clarkson and I were on our second pot of Yorkshire Gold, accompanied by the boon companions of candlelight and good books. Our flow of conversation, suspended only for another sip of tea or another slice of Stilton and sharp apples from the plate near at hand, was punctuated with much laughter and many “Yes! Me, too!”s. We were plotting our Hutchmoot session, which was basically a formalized version of our all-over-the-place chatter about ideals and authors and homes and art, and Sarah was taking notes, reigning our thoughts into order. We were both so excited, so passionate about our topic, but there was one fundamental difference between us: I was heart-poundingly nervous at the very idea of standing before an audience delivering a talk, even on ideals I valued as highly as the ones under discussion. And the poised, sweet, eloquent Sarah was not.

Sure, Sarah’s parents faithfully prepared her and her siblings to present in public, which is an inestimable gift. And Sarah knew what I was to learn: speaking to a roomful of kindred spirits on things that kindle your soul awake is a wholly joyful and energizing experience.

But that day I was just nervous. I kept tripping over my fear as we talked, losing my train of thought in sudden fits of mental paralysis. I looked around the room, at the tea tray, the pretty china, the candlelight warm on the face of my friend, and knit my brow.

“I just wish we could take all of this with us!” I suddenly exclaimed.

Sarah cocked her head.

“You know,” I went on, “the coziness, the tea, the feeling that this is just a stimulating conversation between friends! If it were more tea party and less presentation, I think I could get over myself.”

Sarah smiled.

“I know what my mother would do,” she said.

And in that moment, though I hadn’t yet had the joy of meeting Sally Clarkson, I did, too.

Well, we did it: when we departed for Nashville a couple of days later, I had a basket packed with my favorite teapot, a creamer and sugar, two Blue Willow cups and a couple of starched linen napkins. During the delivery of our talk, we even had an embroidered cloth on the makeshift tea table before us. And though I’m still a bit dazed at the audacity of consuming a whole pot of tea in front of a roomful of tea-less people, it worked. Just as Sarah knew it would, and Sally, too, had she been there. For what we took into that session, what strengthened my heart and calmed my nerves, was more than just caffeine and china: it was the reassurance of all that is familiar, comforting, safe.

I had taken my dear Brown Betty teapot and my grandmother’s hand-monogrammed napkins to Nashville. But what I’d really taken was Home.

It was what Sarah would call an incarnational act: a gesture demonstrating, if only to ourselves, that things like tea and friendship and beauty and rapturous conversation and candlelight matter as conduits of eternal realities. All these intangible ideals we were talking about that day had been verbalized within the very tangible context of my den. This is not to say that a good conversation can’t happen in a sterile environment, but that the physical spaces we claim and craft around those we love feed the life lived within them.

This lovely, lost notion is what Sarah and her mother Sally celebrate, champion and articulate in their new book, The Lifegiving Home. It’s a beautiful read, affirming so many of my own ideals about what a real home is meant to be. Looking back over their journey as a family, Sally and Sarah share their memories and traditions as a very personal story built on a universal theme: home is an image of the ultimate “at-homeness” in Christ we are made for. Ideally, it is the place where identities are known and named; where hearts are tended as well as bodies; where dreams are born and cultivated, and from whence faithful lives are launched into the world.

I think the Clarksons would agree with Kahlil Gibran’s statement that our homes should be “not an anchor, but a mast;” not a burdensome showplace filled with things we don’t really need or want, but a lovingly crafted setting for God’s untamable story of our lives, crammed with memories and precious treasures of “each-otherness”. In such an economy, the simplest things come bearing gifts of very real, touchable grace: from a warm meal at the end of the day, to a safe place to refuge when the world turns a cold shoulder.

Although, they might gently add, home is an anchor. Home—the kind of home that Sally and Sarah describe in their book—is a place from which we soar into our own stories. But it is also a place to which we can always return, a shelter of ‘us’ from which we’ll never be turned away, no matter how tattered our wings might be. In this sense, home is infinitely more than a place, or even blood ties. But disembodied ideals don’t do flesh-bound humans much good–we need practical pegs to hang our convictions on. We’re made to incarnate the things we believe: the value of life and the redemptive pattern of love. Bread is good because it feeds our bodies, but if it is presented as a palpable expression of kindness and care, it nourishes our souls, too.

“The Incarnation,” writes Sarah, “takes the stuff of material existence, the physical world God made to nourish and delight and reveal Himself to us, and redeems it back from just stuff to an embodiment of God’s love, His uninhibited generosity.”

I couldn’t agree more. I am so glad that Sally and Sarah took the time to bring this book into such a heartsick, homesick world as ours. From the complementary perspectives of a mother who had a vision for home, and a daughter shaped by the home thus created, this really is a special look at the ways a family can embody their truths with the elements of everyday life. From feast days to ordinary days, life is meant to be lived with meaning, intention and purpose, and The Lifegiving Home gives us a lively and vivid picture of just how this might be accomplished. In the spirit of Edith Schaeffer’s great sacred-homemaking manifesto, Hidden Art, The Lifegiving Home is a celebration of all that it means to sanctify our spaces with love.

I had the chance to interview the Clarksons for The Rabbit Room earlier this week, and you can click here for an appetite-whetting taste of what their book is all about.

And it’s my great pleasure to be able to offer a copy of this wonderful book as a gift to my readers. Leave a comment describing the one thing about your place on earth that most speaks “home” to you, and I will draw a winner on Friday, February 12th at 12:00 pm EST.

 

Songless

Monday, February 1st, 2016

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This essay was originally published on The Rabbit Room last summer, and is adapted from my plenary session, “Notebooks and Number 2 Pencils,” at the From Death Unto Life conference in Franklin, Tennessee last March.

I know what it means to soar.

When I was twelve years old, I got called out by my algebra teacher for writing stories in class. It was humiliating to have every eye in the room pinned in my direction—and it wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last. I couldn’t help it, though: that back corner desk by the window was too near the real world of birdsong and daydreams, and that story was too intoxicating. My bonneted heroine had just toppled over in a buggy, for heaven’s sake, driven, if memory serves me, by her deceptively demure rival. It was no time to be thinking of integers and variables (as if there ever was a time I willingly submitted my mind to such imponderables!). I still remember that notebook, purchased by my mother for the ostensible purpose of mathematical equations. But the thick, college-ruled paper was just too much for me: I almost saw the words on the page before my #2 pencil formed them. My heart jolted along in the wake of that tale, giddy as my girl in her careening buggy. Writing wasn’t work—how could it be? It was flying.

By the time I was seventeen, writing had become a much more serious business. The #2 pencils and college-ruled paper were now requisite, along with the addition of my dad’s law school-era thesaurus, held together by a rubber band and smelling, enchantingly, of must and sweet wordsmithery. (To this day I can’t open that battered Roget’s without a rush of association so tender it hurts.) But there was something more, something at once mystical and exquisitely practical: as a dreamy-eyed, home-educated high-schooler, I had accidentally discovered fertile valley of solitude. Suddenly rather thin in the friend department, but always one to occupy my own imagination with the utmost contentment, I found in the freedom of my new life ample space for the tending of a rich inner landscape. I walked around in a world of daydreams, stumbling from time to time against prosaic things, like math homework and Friday chores (indeed, “prosaic” was my term of utmost disdain in those days), but at night, I came into my own.

This is what writing looked like when I was seventeen: I would wait until the house fell silent, until the last light in the kitchen had gone out and I heard the scuff of my mother’s slippers retreating to the opposite end of our long, low ranch. Only then would I slip from my bed and steal across the room to the front window, where, beneath tall casements set with fake, 1950s lattice (which I happened to think the most beautiful, bowerly windows imaginable), reposed a particle board footlocker (which I found equally alluring, owing to the treasures housed within its humble frame). To throw back that lid was to let my stories out, friends with whom I shared some of the happiest—albeit most secretive—moments of my life. I had a reproduction copper chamberstick that my dad had given me, and lighting its taper and flinging wide the magic casement to the night air, my ritual was complete. I would kneel there for hours at my footlocker desk, scribbling and dreaming, unburdening my overfull heart of the lovely visions that had been accumulating throughout the day. I like to say that I got addicted to #2 pencils during that time (Empire Integrity, to be precise), but what I was really addicted to, of course, was the thrill of what happened when that pencil made contact with paper. The stories spun themselves, of moonlight and gossamer, laced with the spice of a spring evening or the heart-charging tempest of a blustery October night, and it was magic. The wings of my fledgling soul were tireless, immortal, unencumbered by the weight of self-consciousness which was to tangle later attempts. I mounted and swirled and dove amid the romance of words and ideas; swift as a skylark, exuberant as a mockingbird singing at sunset, I wrote like it was the one thing in the world I was made to do.

No one knew about my stories but my sister and, later, my best friend. Those two took my dreams at face value, a fact for which I owe them an eternal debt. I didn’t want to be a writer in their eyes—I was a writer, by the fairy birthright of ambition. I wrote by night, but I shared my tales with them by day, under the flowering fruit trees of April, or on a carpet of moss beside a merry brown creek. And they did me the honor of crying in the right places and refraining from negative comments which might have snatched me too early from the skies. (Only once did my sister take issue with one of my rather florid descriptions. “I don’t know that ‘flowers straining their silken ears for a familiar footfall’ is quite the best image here,” she said gently. Thank goodness I listened to her.) Apart from my sister and my friend, however, my stories were a closely guarded secret. I had some nebulous notion of sending them out into the world one day, so long as the world proved kind enough. But there was plenty of time for that—in the stories I read and the stories I wrote, things just had a way of working out for the dreamers of dreams.

The words of Longfellow were my rallying cry:

“How beautiful is youth! how bright it gleams
With its illusions, aspirations, dreams!
Book of Beginnings, Story without End,
Each maid a heroine, and each man a friend!”

Then I grew up, and learned how cold the world could be. I’m 40 years old now, and I’m still reeling from the shock that life is hard, and that there’s a cruel, sad spirit abroad which scorns our most sacred ideals. What’s more, I’m staggering around most days under the blow that art is hard. I’m haunted by that 17-year-old girl, with her flying pencil and her heart full of arrow-sweet visions. But here’s something I know to the core of my being: what that idealistic girl believed about God and the world and herself and art and story is the truest thing about me. To hang on to what I knew instinctively then, in the midst of what I know experientially now, is the battleground of my art and my faith. To whisper to a grieving world, even out of great pain, that God is not just as good as we hope He is, He’s better—that the innocence and beauty and goodness we’re all mourning the loss of is actually our rightful inheritance—well, that’s the worthiest reason I can think of to make this great, messy, arduous effort of stringing sentences together, one awkward word after another.

But it’s hard. And right now it’s really hard. Between a burden of circumstances and an accumulated inner crust of self-doubt, the words just aren’t there. I’m not flying—I’m not even gliding short distances: I’m frozen. I feel like a stunned bird that’s smacked into a window, too dazed to try my wings once more. I seriously doubt I would try them, but for a force that’s breathing the beauty of spring into my winter world: friendship. I’m humbled to say that God has sent one of His very sweetest singers to my side in this dark place, a kindred-compatriot who is not only one of the most brilliant souls I’ve ever encountered, she’s one of the truest. Scarcely aware of her own influence (as God’s most shining ones always are), she breeds beauty with a seemingly effortless touch—seemingly, for I’m aware of what it costs her. If I didn’t know her heart, I’d be tempted to envy her gift. But, as it is, she’s generous enough to take me into the counsel of her struggles, her feelings of paralysis, her fear. It was her idea, in fact, that we establish a weekly commitment to help pull one another out of a wordless slough. The routine is simple enough: every Friday, we send each other what we’ve written that week—unpolished, unfinished, and imperfect. We set small, creature-comfort penalties for missed exchanges, but they’re really unnecessary: a debt of honor trumps denial in my book every time.

And so, I’ve been sending her pitiful fragments, bits that never amount to anything, embarrassingly clunky snatches of prose. The intent of our arrangement is safe-keeping, not critique; much as I value feedback, what I need right now is someone I can trust with my messes. This all flies in the face of my sense of privacy and perfectionism, of course—which is exactly what it needs to do. I’ll never be unselfconscious about my writing at large if I can’t be unselfconscious with a beloved friend. Nevertheless, I don’t think I realized how stuck I really was until I started trying to produce something for her eyes. Things got so bad back in February that I cast aside the essay I was grinding over and started something new: a Petrarchan sonnet on writer’s block. (I know—I mean, what did I have to lose?) I sent it to her in pieces as I wrestled out each hard-won word. It’s not a good sonnet, but it helped me articulate the mess I was in:

Word-clipped, I flounder under frowning sky,
Stone-sealed in sullen cloud, from which no ray
Of pallid light escapes to ransom day.
Such useless wings! What passage can they buy
Upon this bone-chill of a breeze? I lie,
Breast-heaving, frantic eyes a-dart, and pray
The ragged crows that circle in the grey,
Or gather on bare branches with a call
So coarse it curdles hope itself, will fail
To spy my helpless state, too stunned to seek
Concealment. Come, heart! Come winter’s prey, small
Songless quarry of the cold: Up-stir! Avail
Yourself of flight! Alas, I am too weak.

I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but the effort of writing this poem was so great it felt like an ending, a swansong—until, suddenly, it wasn’t. For right into the midst of this chaos of scribblings and scratched out words and hair-pulling shone one of those ordinary miracles that hint at something terribly important. Midway through the painful birth of this sonnet, I stepped outside one morning into a world as raw and frozen as my own heart—but, overnight, the world had changed. Impossibly, implausibly, the air was full of music. The branches overhead were host to a crowd of lithe forms, darting, upstarting, and settling again, and they were singing the song of my summer heart.

I could hardly believe it, though it happens every year: the red-winged blackbirds always pass through our place on their migratory path, and I’m always surprised. Just when I think I can’t take one more minute of winter, I’ll open my kitchen door one day to a raucous anthem of warmth and youth and spring. It’s no coincidence that I fell in love with these birds at seventeen, on my first visit to an island that has come to be both haven of dreams and healing place—their music is an unfailing connection to a inner spring of essential “me-ness,” and a time and location that marked me for life.

But that February morning, they sang a wider song, of a strife and a mirth and a joy and a pain of which my solitary struggle was only a part. I thought of my Rabbit Room colleagues and community as I stood there in the cold, warmed by the great, glad, goodness of the various songs they were singing into the world. I thought of the authors who shaped my ideals; the musicians whose songs saved my faith again and again; the poets who emptied their dearly won jewels into my hands. There, in a delightful jumble, I thanked God for Lucy Maud Montgomery and The Innocence Mission and G. M. Hopkins and Andrew Peterson and Elizabeth Goudge and George MacDonald and Michael Card and Sheldon Vanauken. I thanked God for Pete Peterson, who believes in me enough to mark up my stories and point out my writer’s tics, and for dear old “Jack” Lewis, who told us all we’re not alone. In a flash of transcendence, that chorus of blackbirds imaged for me “a great cloud of witness”—a host of faithful ones singing a song so beautiful I longed to lift my voice among them, even if I’m more of a house wren among such larks and nightingales.

Weeks later, I sent my friend a companion to that bleak sonnet, an answering refrain springing from the courage her kinship had leant me. I know that sorrow, struggle, grief, and pain all serve the truest art, but what I’m seeing in this songless place is that we’re not meant to create in isolation. While the ritual of my dear old #2 pencils connects me by some deep instinct to the sweet, secret dreams of my youth, the desperation of experience connects me more than ever to the people in my life. It takes guts and grit and determination to be an artist—we all know that—and lots and lots of solitude. But it takes something more, something mystical as a moonrise and practical as a firm handclasp in the dark: it takes each-otherness.

And in that fellowship, we know that the soaring’s not the thing—the Song is.

What is this whispered force abroad, this rush
And whir of feathered life? The air is stung
With song: a lightning-liquid sweetness wrung
From scores of tiny throats. The dark wings brush
Athwart my gloom, each pinion marked with flush
Of flame, each note a summer hour among
A host of wintry days. Such music, young
From ancient time, and bearing yet the blush
Of spring’s primeval dawn, is goad so glad
It cracks the frozen air with joy and wakes
A sleeping secret in the earth. I rise,
Lift voice, lift bruiséd hope, enough to add
One note to that bright hymn their rapture makes—
And, having done, mount with them to the skies.

A Tour of the Shop

Wednesday, January 27th, 2016

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While it’s undeniably true that a dedicated artist is marked by a willingness to work anywhere, and under any conditions, the appeal of Virginia Woolf’s “room of her own” persists. Even though it’s not always possible, a dedicated space is certainly ideal when it comes to artistic endeavors.

One of the units in my Oxford writing class last fall took us on a virtual tour of modern day authors’ rooms. I was fascinated, particularly by the women’s spaces. They were generally, though not always, tidier than their male counterparts’ (God love them), some even to the point of austerity. Annie Dillard writes of the need to create in a room without windows, if possible, to minimize distraction. There’s way too much Anne Shirley in me, of course, to consider trying to write without ‘scope for the imagination,’ but I do see Dillard’s point. An artist has plenty of pulls on her attention from within her own head not to go courting them from without.

Windows or otherwise, though, I’ve always been enamored with artists’ spaces. Jo March had her garret. Jane Austen had her Chawton parlor. Edith Wharton had her lapdesk in her sumptuous bedroom at The Mount and Lucy Maud Montgomery had her room under the eaves at her grandparents’ Cavendish farm.

And the harder I’ve fought to carve out space for creativity in my own life, the more I’ve realized I needed just that: space.

I’ve had my little desk in the sitting room, by the window (of course!) overlooking the barnyard. And I’ve had my corner of an upstairs bedroom for my bookshop and bookbinding endeavors. But the first Low Door Press project was scarcely underway before I was completely out of room.  And I’m sure I don’t have to elaborate on the myriad distractions afforded by a window overlooking the barnyard!

In the early hours of this new year, Philip and I started talking about how we could better utilize our rooms in a way that would work with–not against–our current passions and projects. What resulted (among other things), was a “room of my own” of my dreams. A few weeks ago we started measuring, shuffling furniture, reallocating, re-purposing, and throwing things away, and though we both could use a massage at this point, we’re delighted with the way things have turned out.

A creative space is every bit as personal as the tender shoots and tendrils of creativity that emerge therein. But my husband has worked so hard to bring mine to life (and I’m so excited about it), that I could not resist a little virtual tour of my own. Welcome to my room, kind friends…

Philip bought me this old dipper in an antique store to remind me what it’s all about.

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This was my great-grandmother’s desk, and it’s been a trusty (and endearingly battered!) comrade from my girlhood. Here I’ve written papers, spun stories, scribbled in my journal and occasionally bowed my head in an obstinate bout of writer’s block. I love every scratch and watermark on its surface.

My desk is flanked by two very important likenesses. On the right is my great-great grandmother’s wedding portrait. She was lovely, and, from all accounts, the kindest and gentlest of women. What’s more, she’s my namesake.

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To the left is one of the dearest things I own: a watercolor of my Daddy, painted by my sister. She gave it to me this Christmas, and every time I see it I’m overwhelmed with how well she captured him. When I’m working at my desk I have only to glance up to remember how much he loves me.

I should mention here that other walls in my shop are graced with original works of art painted by my ridiculously talented sister, both for my limited-release run of Kilmeny of the Orchard, as well as my cherished upcoming project, Poesy. I’ve tried to keep those out of the pictures somewhat, so as not to spoil the surprise…

The book I keep on my desk is Carlyle’s Essay on Burns, simply because Daddy loved them both. And on top of that is a tiny Victorian brooch that Philip dug up in the yard with the metal detector–in the very shape of the Low Door swallow. (I couldn’t help thinking that was pretty significant.)

And in case anyone’s wondering, the framed picture on my desk is Davy Vanauken.

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Here’s one of the things I absolutely love about my room: there is not a single thing in it that does not belong and does not mean something to me. In a way, this space has been years in the making, as I’ve learned to prioritize creativity and make peace with my calling. But in another way, this room represents the work of generations. I’ve always felt a vivid connection to my heritage, and the men and women who have loved and worked and prayed and made sacrifices before my little appearance in history. Oft-repeated family stories have made my ancestors so alive to me that I cannot really contemplate my life out of the context of theirs, and I’m firmly convinced that a lot of the blessings I enjoy today are a direct result of the faithfulness of generations past. I also come from a family that keeps everything, so I’m blessed to have a few tangible connections to my people that make their story a part of my everyday life. Take this old chest, and the mirror above it, now appropriated as my book-packing station. It’s not much to took at, and every single drawer has its own unique requirements for opening and closing with (relative) ease. It was painted black somewhere along the way, and one of the feet comes off when you lift it. But this chest came out of the burning of Atlanta with my great-great-great grandparents during the Civil War. There’s even a crack down one side to tell the story of how it bounced off the oxcart and had to be retrieved in the midst of such fear and haste. I don’t wrap a single book to be mailed without at least a passing thought of those gritty, brave, determined people of mine.

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A few of my Daddy’s tools were just what I needed in my shop.

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I love all the “gear, and tackle, and trim” of bookbinding!

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A few Christmases ago, Philip surprised me with these gorgeous early-19th century book presses. The one on the right is made with massive pieces of solid oak, and I think the one on the left is black walnut. Maybe they need names…

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Every bookshop needs a beautiful bookshop dog. (Meet Bonnie, if you haven’t been properly introduced. She’s the pink–ahem, blue merle–of perfection.)

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This picture was taken before I listed those beautiful, hand-bound George MacDonald books last week, several of which have already sold. But I do have a few left, if you care to have a look…

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My husband graciously donated not one, but two of his worktables to the service of my bookshop. (You should have seen us lugging these things up two flights of stairs!) And the only things we had to buy were a length of lamp cord for the chandelier (which was waiting patiently in the attic) and the cork “idea board” in the corner.

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A few England treasures on the mantelpiece. I found that little collection of Scott in a bookshop in Devon.

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I set up my watercolor station at the west-facing window. This table belonged to my Daddy’s grandmother (whose photograph resides on the bookcase nearby), and I remember it from my grandmother’s front parlor. The oil lamp was one of the few things saved from my aforementioned namesake’s house (along with her Bible and her cookbook–and, yes, I have those, too!) when it burned in 1918.

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Thank you so much for indulging me in this little tour! (I think it wore Bonnie out.)

And…you know what this all means, right? It’s time to get those presses rolling again!

I’m so excited I can hardly stand it. Stay tuned for news of Poesy!

Proper Introductions: George MacDonald

Monday, January 18th, 2016

The great 'Saint Francis of Aberdeen'

G.K. Chesterton called him “one of the three or four greatest men of the 19th century.”

Madeleine L’Engle said he was the “grandfather of us all—all of us who struggle to come to terms with truth through imagination.”

“George MacDonald gives me renewed strength during times of trouble,” she wrote elsewhere, “times when I have seen people tempted to deny God.”

Oswald Chambers wrote in the early 20th century that “it is a striking indication of the trend and shallowness of the modern reading public that George MacDonald’s books have been so neglected.”

Perhaps most famously of all, C.S. Lewis looked upon George Macdonald as a spiritual father. “I dare not say that he is never in error;” Lewis wrote, “but I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer to the Spirit of Christ himself … I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed, I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him.”

For myself, I have never encountered a writer who has convinced me more plainly—or more poignantly—just what the love of God looks like. From his fairy tales, to his novels, to his sermons and essays, MacDonald never veers from his central truth: that God loves the people He has made, and will do whatever it takes to be reunited with them. The Gospel flashes on every page, yet his stories are never preachy. They are hard at times, requiring painful obedience on the part of his characters, but it’s an obedience born out of love, not legalism. At face value, George MacDonald’s stories are rip-roaring yarns, most of which are set in Scotland, with a dash of Highland wildness for good measure and more than a generous helping of brogue. But it doesn’t take more than a casual acquaintance with MacDonald to realize that there’s much more going on here than meets the eye. Like the fire of roses in The Princess and the Goblin, there is an irresistible fragrance and warmth at the heart of his tales, drawing us into the essential comfort of the good news they bear.

From the wells of a limitless imagination, Macdonald draws us unforgettable pictures of an active salvation; his words are a bracing draft of Kingdom wine to cheer the heart, and a stiff breeze of Kingdom freshness to clear the mind and open the eyes. And I’ve found that the longer I sit with his stories, the more they mean—and the more I see. I read Phantastes (the book that Lewis credited with the “baptism of [his] imagination”) upwards of ten years ago, but the images contained therein are of such a continually recurring vitality, it seems like I read it only yesterday.

It would be unfortunate, however, to read only his stories and miss his sermons and essays. While MacDonald’s fiction is thick with imagery and quotable lines, there’s a straightforwardness about his non-fiction that collars the heart with its insistence on the greatness of grace, and the unnecessary hardship of resisting it.

When C.S. Lewis compiled his famous Anthology of MacDonald’s work, he pulled heavily from the author’s three-volume collection of Unspoken Sermons: “My own debt to this book is almost as great as one man can owe to another,” Lewis wrote, “and nearly all serious inquirers to whom I have introduced it acknowledge that it has given them great help—sometimes indispensable help toward the very acceptance of the Christian faith.”

But, oh, how I love his stories! Being of an imaginative turn of mind, that is where he meets me best, among his gallant Highlanders and goblin-defying princesses and haunted castles and agelessly immortal great-great grandmothers. And while I appreciate the fact that recently edited versions of MacDonald’s fiction have brought dear Grandpa George out of total obscurity in this day and age, I really think it’s a shame to miss his tales in their original language. To be sure, the brogue can be a bit of a challenge at first, like reading Shakespeare for the first time, but once you get its cadences in your head, it fills your mind with music. And in a brisk world of complicated ‘conveniences’ and short attention spans, I’m convinced that a little mental workout is as good for the soul as it is for the head.

George MacDonald is a treasure for the seeking heart. And it is for this reason that I am absolutely thrilled to be able to offer today some exquisite, heirloom-quality editions of MacDonald’s works. These books are produced by a small family press, using printing plates made from antiquarian originals, some of which are first editions. The books are printed on a Heidelberg press, using archival paper and soya-based ink—and, what’s more, these books are bound by hand.

Being a bookbinder myself, I simply cannot get over the quality and craftsmanship of these volumes. They are simply beautiful. Not only that, they are durable, having been coated with the same waterproofing material that was used in 19th century bookbinding technique. These books are as close as you can get to what a brand-new edition of an original George MacDonald book would have looked like.

(And I will go ahead and say that I’m fortunate enough to own personal copies of all of these books…there’s no way I could part with them otherwise!)

There are selections of sermons and literary criticism, in addition to several of his novels, among them my personal favorite (of the non-fantasy fiction variety), What’s Mine’s Mine. There’s also a copy of the beloved Sir Gibbie (“It moved me the way books did when, as a child, the great gates of literature began to open and first encounters with noble thoughts and utterances were unspeakably thrilling,” wrote MacDonald’s editor Elizabeth Yates) and it’s deliciously inscrutable sequel, Donal Grant… among others!

To see all of the George Macdonald in inventory, you can click here.

And as an added little bonus, I’m listing a pretty reading copy of MacDonald’s beloved fairy tale, At the Back of the North Wind. It’s a much-loved volume, in a rather Skin Horse kind of way, but the binding is sound, and the illustrations are enchanting.

If you’re interested in reading a bit more about George MacDonald, you can read my review of Lilith here.

Ron Block wrote a wonderful review of Donal Grant for The Rabbit Room.

And here’s a long passage I love from Phantastes that gives a glimpse of the greatness of this great man’s heart, and the tenderness of his imagination.

"I write, not for children, but for the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five." ~George MacDonald

There is a Narnia

Wednesday, January 13th, 2016

This time last year, my world was filled with uncertainty, fear, and a suffocating amount of sadness–and into all that chaos God whispered my word for 2015: Joy. I wrote this piece for The Rabbit Room back in February, but I wanted to share it again in all the starched and pressed possibility of a New Year, both to look back His goodness and look forward to His faithfulness.

By the way, I have a new word for 2016. It’s Peace.

Shalom, friends.

"Always winter, and never Christmas; think of that!" ~C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

A little over a month in, and this brand new year has already beaten us up pretty good. I should have known it was an ill omen when, instead of the dinner party we’d planned with friends, we spent New Year’s Eve in the ER with my dad. We got home just in time for a somber little champagne toast by the fire and a rather tearful listen to Over the Rhine’s Blood Oranges in the Snow. When the neighbors’ fireworks boomed and flowered in the night sky, we went out onto the back porch to see what we could over the trees. I remembered another New Year’s when the neighbors’ display of shells and repeaters had been a tangible symbol of hope for me, kindling fires of faith in my heart. I sighed, and drew my cardigan close. Then I went back in the house.

“I’m afraid to open the door to 2015,” I whispered to Philip. “I don’t trust it.”

When I was a little girl, I had a wonderful babysitter named Mary. She was a great big bosomy woman with a voice that sounded like honey on buttered toast. She broke nearly every dish my mother owned, and the meals in her repertoire consisted of fried hot dogs and “hamburglers and grits” (a delicacy I relish to this day). But she played with us in the yard, games from her own far-off childhood, like “Kitty Wants a Corner” and “Ain’t No Boogey Man Out Tonight” (I can still hear her shrill cry of, “Y’all hid?”). And she let us play games of our own devising in the house, most notably the living room acrobatics of “Can’t Touch the Ground,” in which my mother’s furniture fared only slightly better than our bumped and bruised personages. I never knew how old Mary was: she was ageless, immortal. And when she rocked me and sang to me at night—well past the age that I fit comfortably in her ample lap—it was angel songs on the tongue of a saint.

Mary’s faith was adorned with a fine veil of little superstitions which were less insurances against mishap than demonstrations of confident expectation. (Unlike the babysitter who tucked a kitchen knife between the mattress and box springs when my mother was on bed rest with my brother, to “cut the pain” of delivery.) On a long-ago New Year’s, I caught her at one of them, and to this day I never see the stroke of midnight on December 31st that I don’t think of her. I had crept from my bed, wakened, no doubt, by the bottle rockets spitting and popping in our otherwise quiet neighborhood, and as I came into the dining room of our long, low ranch house, I saw Mary fling wide the French doors opening onto the back yard. She stood there for a moment, head thrown back in a rush of frosty air, then, sensing my presence, she turned around with a huge grin.

“I’m lettin’ the new year in, honey!” she replied to my puzzled expression.

As a child, I was delighted with her whimsy; as an adult, I quake before her confidence.

I didn’t want to let this new year in. Not that it made one iota of difference: 2015 marched in my door, invited or not, with its fears and uncertainties and relentless progression of Daddy’s disease. Walking the long valley of terminal illness with a loved one is such a protracted grief, like watching a plane crash in slow motion. I feel so helpless most days, even when I’m doing what little I can to mitigate his sufferings. And I’ve realized with a shock what an isolating thing sorrow can be: how its suffocating darkness can swallow you whole at times, until you feel like the Narnians imprisoned in Underworld, succumbing to the enchantment of the Witch’s song: “There is no sun, there is no sun

The barn, in a rare Southern snowstorm

When God whispered to my bruised heart that “joy” was my word for 2015, I wanted to laugh. But I know Him better than that. So I hung an ornament a friend had given me for Christmas between my kitchen windows, a cute little wooden affair that spelled out J-O-Y in block letters. And I proceeded to “take joy” with abandon. I took it in my Instagram feed, with pictures of my puppy, Bonnie Blue, and in the rose-gold grace of a winter sunset kindling my stubbled pastures into holy fire. I took it in the smiles of Daddy’s good days, and in the songs of Rich Mullins and Andrew Peterson and Eric Peters. And it was good—transcendent.

But most of the time I felt like a failure in the school of joy. That little wooden plaque above my kitchen sink was mocking me; once, I almost took it down.

Earlier this week, Philip and I spent another 12 hours in what felt like the subterranean labyrinths of the ER, gazing at one another sorrowfully across my father’s hospital bed. Late in the day I went in search of coffee, navigating a half-dozen hallways that all looked exactly the same, until I emerged into the waiting room, crowded now with new faces since our early morning arrival. I tried to summon a smile for those nearest at hand, but I just couldn’t manage it; a sympathetic half-smirk was all I could muster. Pressing on, I rounded a corner that gave onto another long hallway, at the end of which I’d heard there was a barista serving up the blessed back stuff. But as soon I set foot in that corridor, something happened: for the first time in that long, sad, cold day, I was warm. On my left was nothing but windows (God bless the architect!), and through them streamed a radiance so living I was tempted to stretch out my hand to touch it: the sun! I stopped and stared like I’d never seen it before. Outside, the winter-stripped trees lifted gilded arms and clouds sailed cottony boats over an azure sky. When we’d set out that morning, the world was grey of face, with heavy brows drawn down in scowling thunderheads, but now I hardly recognized it. My heart hailed the miracle with a surge of—yes—joy. I quipped with the barista; I smiled at the marooned souls in the waiting room. And when I got back to our cramped little staging cell, I handed Philip his coffee with a significant look.

“What?” He cocked his head.

“There is a Narnia,” I said.

His eyes softened.

“Yes,” he replied. “Yes there is.”

That little incident, trifling as it may seem, bore a weight of eternity to me. It was like God put a fatherly finger under my chin and turned my head to look in the right direction. To honor grief while taking joy is to embrace the mystical dialectic of our faith—we all know that. But in my grief, I had forgotten. In a whirlpool of responsibilities, I had taken up one God never meant for me assume. Joy-Maker—that’s His name, not mine.

I was reminded of this poem I wrote for Philip last summer, ostensibly about my tendency to seek a repeat of joys I’ve already experienced, rather than being open to the gifts of the unknown. But, like pretty much everything I’ve ever written, I didn’t know what it was about until I wrote it. And, in this case, I didn’t know what it was about until it hit me squarely between the eyes over half a year later.

Shore Path, Bar Harbor

I wanted to turn back,
Traverse once more the way we’d come,
Grown pearly now in incandescence of this dying day—
(Dying? If death be half so radiant,
Why must hearts be trained to fear it? Sadly
Such a native glory goes unlearned!)

To grasp again the gift
Of once unlooked-for opulence—

To know, as if by chance,
Each aged fir that leaned on lichened wall,
Each maiden birch unsheathing
Innocence before an ardent sea,
And sea itself, translucent
In that piled and pillared splendor of the west—

Again, and for the first time.

But being he, and wiser far,
He turned from fatal image of delight
And chose the not-known shadows of a moonlit way
Where evening gathered violets ‘neath the pines
And ferns breathed out the last of summer’s spice.

“Joy cannot be domesticated,”
He told me with a smile,
Though he uttered not a word.

Joy isn’t a spiritual discipline. Thanksgiving, praise, a cultivated gratitude, yes, absolutely—but joy is a gift, a fruit of the Spirit. We can’t summon, capture or tame it. We can only follow its comet trail of glory with our eyes, already vanishing before we’ve half-realized it’s passed right through our hearts. We “take joy” by declaring such moments are true, that they happened, and that they mean something wilder and more beautiful than we can ever get our minds around. But we can’t make joy, or find it.

Joy finds us—in the way of faith, and even when, benumbed with grief or fear or shame or weariness, we stumble out of it.

Thanks be to God.

Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,
When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death
And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.
~C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Missing Christmas

Friday, January 8th, 2016

"Christemas hath made an end, Well-a-day! well-a-day! Which was my dearest friend, More is the pity!" English Traditional Carol

It’s hard to believe that the anticipation of Advent, the bright sheen of Christmastide, the piercing light of Epiphany have all come and gone.  But in spite of all our glad Christmas-keeping, January 7th just will not be gainsaid. We took our tree down last night, and today my rooms are heartlessly bare.

“How could I ever have imagined my house was warm and inviting outside of Christmastime?” I lament to the front hall each year.

The echo I hear is not in my imagination. It looks (and feels) like the Grinch has been here. I didn’t even notice the shabbiness of the loveseat upholstery or the threadbare place in the rug back in December, but now they’re all I see.

The red silk ribbons have been rolled back on spools until next year; the holly and the ivy wreaths and the pine garland all swept away to the burn pile; the beloved ornaments packed rather obsessively in tissue paper. The only thing that remains is a mercury glass bowl of oranges on the counter and the garland of Christmas cards framing the kitchen door.

“I’m leaving them up,” I told Philip. “I need my people in January.”

And I do. Never before have all those bright faces and glittered images given me so much joy. I smile back every time I catch sight of their smiles, so many those of children who have a rather poignant habit of getting taller and and handsomer and more beautiful each year, like young kings and queens of Narnia. I love all the snow-crusted scenes with hand-written sentiments inside. I love the flash of gold foil and the opulence of verse and the cardinals and the holly berries. I love the little rattle they make whenever someone passes briskly through the doorway, and the fact that I have to keep straightening the ribbon to which they are pinned, as the whole thing reaches nearly to the floor on both sides.

A garland of smiles

We had a lovely, shadow-laced holiday, and I’m percolating with anticipation over certain plans and projects for the New Year. I’m savoring the gift of a pause before classes start back, and reclaiming my pantry from six weeks’ worth of treats, and shepherding myself into a much-needed quiet month.

But today I’m just missing Christmas–the sparkle, the aromas that bring tears to my eyes, the red ribbons and the red tapers and the champagne and the fireworks. I’m missing the poetry and the magic–the gold dust of significance cast over ordinary, earthly things.

On Wednesday I set a little table by the tree for the traditional end-of-the-season lunch with my dear Christmas compatriot. For years now we’ve bookended our holidays with intentional anticipation and savoring, and of all people on earth, she knows why it’s so needful to wrap it up in a last sheen of pear cider, red glass and King’s College carols. We ate “Little Epiphany” cheese from a local creamery, topped with the last of my cranberry conserve, and feasted simply (and somewhat refreshingly) on soup and cornbread. We talked about the Christmas we’d had, and the things we’re looking forward to. About the girls we once were and how the older (ahem, more seasoned) we get, the more we need to mingle their ideals with the wisdom of our experience.

(We didn’t talk about this, but she wouldn’t bat an eyelash at the fact that I burned well over a hundred tea lights and votives this past month, or that we went through at least that many freshly ironed damask napkins.)

We used to talk about how to keep it simple, and how to console ourselves once it was all over. Now we talk about how to hold all this bright-edged sadness, how to carry it into our year, and how undeniably lovely the Light is against all the darkness.

She left me that day buoyed with the sweet elation of a shared tenderness, ending this holiday on a harmony of joy and inspiration. I finished the pot of lemon rooibus I’d brewed, and watched the sun set in a lovely, long-shadowed flush of rose-tinted gold. Just like my Christmas, I thought, winding down with a gentle, jewel-spangled radiance.

I am so thankful–for more things than I can recount, in words I just don’t have yet.

Tree-spangled sunset

I’ve posted this before, but I love this poem by Robert Herrick. It captures for me the essence of celebration buried at the heart of each season of the year–and of life: the promise of new things coming and the unfading beauty of old things that will always remain.

Ceremonies for Candlemas Eve

Down with the rosemary and bays,
Down with the misletoe ;
Instead of holly, now up-raise
The greener box (for show).

The holly hitherto did sway ;
Let box now domineer
Until the dancing Easter day,
Or Easter’s eve appear.

Then youthful box which now hath grace
Your houses to renew ;
Grown old, surrender must his place
Unto the crisped yew.

When yew is out, then birch comes in,
And many flowers beside ;
Both of a fresh and fragrant kin
To honour Whitsuntide.

Green rushes, then, and sweetest bents,
With cooler oaken boughs,
Come in for comely ornaments
To re-adorn the house.
Thus times do shift ; each thing his turn does hold ;
New things succeed, as former things grow old.

~Robert Herrick

I’ll be all right. In a day or so my home will feel like home again without all the bright trappings, and I’ll look for ways to celebrate the starker, sharp-edged joys of January.

But if the day ever comes wherein I can face the end of Christmas with equanimity, then I shall know my heart has grown old. God forbid.

The three red roses Christmas left in her wake.

If you’re so inclined, treat yourself to these two end-of-Christmas carols:

Emma Kirkby’s haunting version of Christemas Hath Made an End.

Kate Rusby’s gorgeous version of Herrick’s Candlemas Eve (which I absolutely adore. It feels like an anthem for my New Year.)

Keeping Christmas

Wednesday, December 30th, 2015

The Advent Wreath, with its Christmas Week red candles.

I’ve been looking forward to this day all year long.

After a blessed week of merrymaking with my loved ones, of comings and goings, of a constantly running dishwasher and overflowing rooms, of precious family and friends-like-family under my roof and gathered around my table(s), of busy hands and an overflowing heart, today has been a day of sweet nothing.

For weeks my “to-do” list has shimmered with loved tasks, each days’ allotment idealistically exceeding the limits of physical possibility, while my freezers have steadily filled and my rooms assumed their fairest faces of the whole year. I’ve clipped holly and woven ivy and wired pine until you’d think my fingers would keep going through the motions while I sleep. I’ve turned the kitchen inside out over casseroles and cookies and conserve and caramels—and just as soon as everything was tidy once more, I’ve turned it inside out all over again. We’ve hauled chairs out of the attic and shuffled furniture and set tables in every conceivable place.

And in the very early mornings, I’ve sat with my Bible or my prayer book, staring at the constellations of stars on my Christmas tree and pondering that astonishing Story, making space for the wonder to re-enchant my heart.

A favorite Christmas gift: a lovely vintage feve from Belgium, sent from a beloved absent friend overseas. All ready to be baked into the Twelfth Night Cake!

I’ve loved every second of it, even the hard parts, for, as Philip and I are always reminding each other, life hurts because we love and have been loved. (I’ve cried over some of my happiest memories and I’ve welcomed them to the Christmas table of today because they are what my present happiness is built upon.)

For weeks, “my hands could scarce keep pace with my desire.” But today has been a pajama day; a day of utter and unapologetic indolence. It’s been a day for Russian tea and a Miss Read book and a constant rotation of cats vying for my lap. I’ve done bit of journaling, a bit of napping, a lot of sitting and remembering and enjoying. (Even the cold I’ve finally succumbed to doesn’t seem to be at odds with this gentle savoring—it only seems to enforce it.)

Tonight we’ll load up the Stack-O-Matic with Christmas records and sip some festive cocktails of my husband’s devising. We might crack out the chess board, or an Elizabeth Goudge story I’ve been wanting to share. And the winter night will gather out under the pines and creep up to the windows and perhaps even moan about the eaves of the house a bit. But inside, dear old Christmas will reign yet, ripened to the lovely prime of her sixth day.

I had the sweetest company while arranging the Christmas roses this year.

I’m well aware that a goodly portion of the world has moved on—the Twelve Days of Christmas seem to wear more of the wistfulness of legend than the habit of actuality in many circles. But Christmas is just too grand, too dear, too big to limit to one day. I remember being inconsolably sad on Christmas night as a little girl, distraught that it was “all over.” How thankful I am that both the tradition of my faith and the rhythms Philip and I have built into our own lives have made these twelve blessed days an experienced reality. I admit, it felt like pretending, at first, in those early years when we were just beginning to cultivate the culture of our home—to act like Christmas wasn’t over, when the world beyond deemed otherwise, was a very real challenge. It was like trying to touch a star, or grow into clothes that were too big. But that was just it—we grew into it. With a few years and a lot of memories under our belts, we’ve grown into Christmastide. I’ve gained the confidence—or the unconcern, whatever it is—to keep Christmas, not just observe it as it flies. In many ways, this old house, with its memories and sympathies and secrets, has given me that confidence; if anything, it knows what it means to stand still while the current of time swirls madly by on both sides.

The chickens' (and peacocks') Christmas Eve cornbread, still warm from the oven.

Before I close and head down to the barn, I wanted to share a bit from last Christmas, which, in the light of my previous post, I hope might be like a little holly-crowned lantern in your Christmas week.

~~~

Last Christmas was hard in a different way than this Christmas has been; last year was darkened with the shadow of loss, while this one has been pierced by the actual thorn of it. And yet, the Lord did some really beautiful things last year. (He did some beautiful things this year, too, but they are too fresh, like a clutch of roses only just unfurled, and bear a bit more keeping and pondering.) Looking back, I am astonished at how Love showed up in the midst of such pain, and I keep remembering a certain moment that seemed to hold it all in one lovely little vignette…

Daddy’s condition deteriorated rapidly last December, and the day before Christmas Eve was particularly challenging. The reality that some really excruciating decisions were looming cast such a pall over everything I felt very close to despair. A few cheering texts from Philip that afternoon, and a heart-to-heart phone call with my mother-in-law put fresh courage in my heart, however, and with renewed intention I dashed the tears from my eyes and got to work. Both guest rooms were made up with love and anticipation. Tables were set for 30 for Christmas Eve and preparations for another 15 on Christmas Day. A rum cake tucked in the oven and a thousand other items ticked off my list.

Hermione and Perdita enjoying more Christmas apples on the third day of Christmas.

Around three, I went out in the yard to gather holly and greenery to tuck over the pictures and wind into wreaths. It had been raining all day, and a quiet, white fog was rolling down the terraces of the west pasture. I hiked up to the rather uncanny corner where the ivy hangs in long ribbons from the trees, and gathered an armload in the hush of the dripping woods.

Coming back down the pasture with my bounty, I stopped suddenly and drew my breath, the tears stinging my eyes. My home reposed below, a beacon of warmth and light against all that gloom. Its very soul seemed to gleam from every window, and the Christmas lights twinkled merrily from the den. Glancing towards the barn, I saw my sheep, gathered in a little clutch by the doorway, watching me placidly, as only sheep who know their shepherd can watch—even from that distance I could see the contented movement of their jaws as they chewed their cud. I thought of those guest rooms all made up with decorated mantles and fires laid and freshly ironed pillowcases; of all those tables set; of the freezer in the basement stuffed with cookies and casseroles, and the boxes of homemade caramels in the kitchen, and the scent of that rum cake in the oven, and the holly on the back porch that soon would crown all the portraits, and the roses waiting to be arranged in my grandmother’s silver epergne.

And then, over all, the great Cause of all this preparation and coming celebration pierced my heart with a sword of joy. This home, this bit of earth, these animals, these friends, my dear Philip—it was all suddenly so beautiful to me that, although there were some major things I’d change if God handed me the reins for a moment, I was able to rejoice in the fact that He had over-abundantly answered my prayers for this Christmas in particular. I’d asked Him, out of my sadness, that my rooms would be filled with people I love; that I’d be able to make beds and cook and create memories for my dear ones in His name—and all this He gave, and was giving, with such extravagance I could hardly bear the swift, winged joy of the thing.

The wilderness, indeed, blossoms as the Rose!

I loved decking this sweet girl for the dining room mantle.

That night, my seventeen year-old neighbor brought over a gift: an arrangement she’d made herself of crimson roses, with holly and fir and two red candles. I was so deeply touched. It was like a kiss from God, a loving reminder.

“My mom said that red roses mean a lot to you,” she said.

I looked her straight in the eye. “There is not one thing you could have given me that would have meant more.”

~~~

The west pasture at sunset.

And finally, all of you dear souls who have written, messaged, emailed and commented—thank you. I never cease to be overwhelmed with the warmth of those who frequent this place, many of whom I’ve never met. I’m astonished at your patience, after such long stretches of silence! And you do me such an honor to read and respond to my words here. More than all, I want to thank you for your prayers—I know they have availed in large part to make this season in my life as special as it’s been. I’ve been surprised again and again this holiday at the genuine joy that keeps catching me in its arms—but it really should come as no surprise. You know when you’re being prayed for. Thank you.

December mornings

Seeds of Love

Saturday, December 19th, 2015

In the Bleak Midwinter

I am so sick of death.

It’s been a year of bereavement. Even before Daddy died we were mourning the cruel progress of disease, hearts fainting before the horrors of each new stage. There were bright moments of sweetness and light, to be sure, little triumphs of love and glimpses of a glory beyond our ken. But there were also moments I long to forget—and know that I never will.

In the midst of one of these more…challenging…seasons last spring, we found out that our darling Great Pyrenees and barn babysitter, Diana, was gravely ill. We brought her home from the emergency vet clinic with broken hearts, presumably to die. But after one night in the house, Di made a break for it—I found her at the barnyard gate, where her goat and sheep charges were keeping an eager lookout for her return. She wagged her tail with a pathetic effort, looking up at me with that gaze of hers that plunged right into my soul. Di and I had always had a very special relationship; from the very beginning she talked to me with her eyes, and I understood her.

“If I’m going to die,” she told me then, “I’m going to do it right here, in my barn, with my charges around me. Don’t make me leave my job until I have to.”

“All right, Di,” I told her, rubbing her silky head. “Have it your way.”

And she did. She rallied. God’s mercy and alternative veterinary medicine gave us hope. Our vet was cautiously optimistic, and I was determinedly confident. She started making her rounds again, patrolling the pastures and barnyard, and even frolicking a bit with our Pyr pup, Flora.

“I need a miracle, God,” I kept insisting. “I need You to let Di get well.”

Diana was the most valiant dog I have ever seen—her heart kept fighting, even after her body couldn’t. But at the end of May she gave up. And something inside of me gave up, too. We buried her on a hill in the eastern pasture—one her favorite spots, and one of the first places the sun touches in the morning. I’d never dug a grave before, and I know I wasn’t really that much help. But it made me feel a little less helpless to work beside my husband in the warm silence of that May night. Plunging that shovel again and again into that stubborn red earth with tears pouring down my face: it was the last thing I could do for her.

My Diana

~

Two weeks after Daddy’s funeral, I got the news that the wife of a childhood friend had been killed in a horrific accident, leaving three young children behind.

A few weeks later, my beloved housekeeper, Joan, died of cancer. For fifteen years of Friday mornings, Joan and I had kept this old place from coming apart at the seams, talking from room to room as we worked, tackling windows, woodwork, floors and cat hair with a rhythm that seemed almost choreographed. More than just a housekeeper, Joan was a dear friend and extra mother: I cannot tell you how many cans of Scott’s Liquid Gold we’ve gone through together—or how many hours I’ve spent propped against the kitchen counter taking a goodly dose of advice drawn from the wells of Joan’s practical wisdom. I loved her so much.

“I don’t know how to do Christmas without Joan,” I told Philip the other day.

(But there’s one thing I do know, and it’s that Joan would roll over in her grave if she could see the state of my heart pine floors. She took such pride in them, you’d think they were her own. I’ll never be able to maintain them to her standard.)

In November, Philip’s first cousin sickened and died rather suddenly. It was a hope-laced funeral. But another funeral.

I never want to see that stupid black dress again.

~

A few weeks ago found us racing our beloved pet Nubian goat, Puck, to a university veterinary hospital a couple of hours away. It was one of those maladies wherein every second counts—I could have kissed the ground when we finally pulled up in front of the large animal wing. The vets were skilled and confident, and set our hearts at ease; we hated to have to leave him, but we knew he was in the best hands in the entire state for the particular surgery he required. A week of persistent hope ensued, with twice daily calls from the doctor on the case, a few niggling concerns, and general reports of the sweetness of Puck’s disposition. Finally, I decided that he just needed to see me in order to rally enough to come home, so I filled up a bag with his favorite greens from the farm, cedar and pine, and headed across the state.

He did perk up when he saw me; everyone marveled at it. But, after all, Puck was my baby—I’d had him since he was less than twenty-four hours old, and, for all his—puckishness—he would let me scratch behind his long Nubian ears and kiss his Roman nose just as long as I pleased. In the evenings, we would walk back to the barn together, my arm slung over his back. He’s even been known to let me tie Christmas ribbons around his neck.

So, of course he was glad to see me, and I him. And even though the treat of the greens I’d brought had to be forestalled because of a second surgery the vets deemed entirely necessary that day, he knew I’d brought them. And he knew I was there. I got to spend a lot of time with him in his stall, and when the surgeons were ready, I was able to walk with him all the way to the surgery bay.

I told him I loved him. (If you’ve never had the love of a Nubian goat in your life, you’re missing out: they’re sensitive, playful, wise and loyal—and what’s more, they love you back.) Then I went to the car to wait.

As I waited, a dark anxiety crept over me. I thought of something a wise older friend once said: that she was learning to praise God, not just for deliverance from crisis, but in the very moment of crisis itself. It was worth a shot—the darkness was so suffocating I had to do something. So I thanked Him for everything I could think of. I prayed for everyone I knew who had known sorrow that year. I prayed for the refugee crisis and I prayed for my sweet, sick goat. I praised God for the comfort of His presence I had known in the past, and I praised Him—falteringly—for withdrawing that comfort.

And I remembered something—or, God brought it to mind, which is more likely.

I remembered back in May, after Diana died, how I’d wandered for days in a paralyzing fog. Daddy was doing so much worse I could neither believe nor bear it; my heart shrank from each visit with him. And then I’d come back home to a world in which there was no Di. It was awful.

I couldn’t pray; I couldn’t talk to God. I couldn’t feel joy.

I couldn’t feel anything, really, but this dull ache of sadness. And even that was blunted, numb.

One morning I went through the motions of a prayer time, but I didn’t know what to say.

“I’ve been mad at You in the past,” I whispered. “I’m not mad at You anymore—I’m afraid of You.”

The moment the words were out of my mouth it was as if something unfurled in my heart. I suddenly had this startlingly clear mental image of how I must have appeared to God at that very minute: balled up like an armadillo, curled imperviously around my own heart to protect it from further bruising. In an instinctive act of subconscious self-defense, I had rolled myself into a big ball of ‘No’.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t get to God—God couldn’t get to me. I believe that He respects our free will too much to violate it, even out of earth-shattering love. But He woos and He waits—which is incomprehensibly astonishing. And when the moment is right, He pulls back the tiniest corner of the veil between what we can see and what is real.

The pain is real, yes. But the joy—and the love and the heart of redemption behind it all—is more real.

Armed with this rather unflattering picture of myself, I began to see how resisting the “bad stuff” in life was essentially denying me of the “good stuff”—the tender mercies and comfort of God; hope, joy and peace; the tang of adventure and the sweet song of dreams. The psychologists all affirm it: shutting down to one emotion is shutting down to all—it’s why people wake up one day unable to feel anything.

It seems natural enough to protect our hearts from grief—to grimly endure or anesthetize with busyness or distraction or exhaustion. But to protect our hearts from grief is to protect our hearts from love. And that’s no way to live.

I had forgotten. I had forgotten that the opposite of joy is not sadness, but fear. I had forgotten (again) that joy and sorrow are twin eggs of the same nest. I had forgotten that love is always worth the pain—always.

I had forgotten that battered hearts are the most beautiful in the end.

And so, I sat there in the early light, with my hands open, whispering ‘Yes’.

Yes to losing Daddy in such a slow and tragic way. Yes to the complexity of life. Yes to the death of my darling Diana and Yes to all the creatures I’ve loved and lost.

Yes to the fact that the seed of Love is shaped exactly like a thorn.

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

And then the miracle happened: the sun started coming out again.

~

“Stay open,” I pleaded with my own heart, sitting there in the car, waiting for news of Puck. “Stay open—the love is worth it.”

Into that little capsule of pleas and imperfect praise came the sudden, sharp ringing of my cell phone: Puck hadn’t made it through the surgery.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt so alone in my entire life. Even in all the heartache of the past year, there had always been a hand to hold—my husband’s, a friend’s, my sister’s. Now I was all by myself, in a strange town, with a grief that just felt like one blow too many.

I cried all the way home, back over all those hours and miles, in rain and rush-hour traffic—for my darling Puck, for Joan, for Daddy, for suffering friends, for the sorrow of the whole world. It’s a wonder my little roadster didn’t fly apart under the pressure of such grief. But it was all just too much. Blinded by pain and tears, I raised a wordless lament, pounding the steering wheel for good measure. But underneath, a rebellious little refrain was gathering, mounting to a final crescendo of agony:

This is not the way it’s supposed to be.

This is not the way it’s supposed to be. All this sadness and bad news and dying. All these anxious phone calls, wars, scary test results, car accidents, terminal diagnoses, ruptured marriages, dogs with cancer, infertility, prodigal children. We hate it, not only because it all hurts like hell, but because eternity itself is encoded in our hearts, telling us that things should be different—in fact, will be, someday. But that doesn’t seem to help much when we’re staggering beneath the bereavement of the way things are.

Of course we feel this way—of course.

But it’s only when we bare our hearts to the pain of this brutal paradox, that our hearts are fully open to the beautiful mystery: God sent His Son right into the very middle of this mess. He broke His centuries-long silence with a baby’s cry. Almighty God became helpless, humble, vulnerable to the hurts and evils of this world, so that we—and our hurts into the bargain—might be redeemed. What on earth does redemption mean but to get back all that is rightfully ours, not because we’re good enough, but because we’re loved enough? Not because we deserve it, but because it’s the way God wanted it to be all along. The story is clear all the way through the Bible: God doesn’t want our sacrifices and our stuff—He wants our hearts. And I believe that He is gathering up everything that has ever broken our hearts to make it all right again in our redemption. I don’t claim to know what that means, particularly this side of heaven. But if there’s one thing I’m not afraid of (and, believe me, there are plenty of things I am!), it’s that God will turn out to be less loving, less good, less tender than I always hoped He’d be.

~

I wept when I got home that night and found Philip and Bonnie, our Aussie pup, waiting for me on the back steps. I wept when I went down to the barn in the dark, into the goat stall that was now only Hermione’s and Perdita’s. I wept when I thought about Puck’s untasted Christmas greens, and about all the children to whom I’d have to break the news.

Puck

~

Years ago, not long after Philip and I got married, I was lamenting playfully with some of my girlfriends over my fierce sentiments surrounding Christmas.

“I cry when we put the tree up, and I cry when we take the tree down!” I chirped.

Everyone laughed, but a well-intentioned older woman in our midst spotted a teachable moment.

“Lanier, someday you’re going to have a lot more to cry over than taking down your Christmas tree,” she said.

Her words fell like a pall, and everyone stopped laughing. I was too shy to say it out loud, but mentally I replied, “Well, then, I’ll cry about that, too.”

She was right, of course.

But so was I.

Because if the buffeting of years has done anything, it’s deepened my delight in Christmas. It’s made my Dayspring’s visit more precious than ever. The candles on my Advent wreath blooming out against an early winter twilight reach some deeper, keener place that sorrow has opened in my soul. The dawn of a December morning baptizing the world with rose-hearted gold is almost too beautiful to bear, for I know what it points to.

For passed is yon dully night
Aurora has the cloudes pierced,
The Sun is risen with gladsome light…

And when we sit quietly in the barn in the evenings and listen to the contented clucks and grunts and hay-munchings of our animals, my heart kneels to the wonder of it all. O magnum mysterium.

The sheep love their Christmas apples!

Our hearts are battered. There is an empty chair at our table, and a bright spirit has gone out of our barn.

And, yet—strangely, impossibly—I have more to celebrate, not less.

A fragment of a verse has been humming away at the back of my mind this Advent season, so persistent I finally looked it up. Yet will I rejoice…

It comes from the book of Habakkuk, that singular little Old Testament tussle with the most bothersome question of all: if God is supposedly so good, why does He permit such awful things to happen? It’s a one-sided quarrel with God (I might know a thing or two about those), but after a series of complaints and honest questions, the good prophet wraps up his argument with one of the most beautiful assertions of faith in the whole Bible:

Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls:

Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.

Why? Because He is the God of salvation. Because God is not limited by appearances or bound by our circumstances. Because there is always, always more to the story—as George MacDonald said, “Good is always coming.” What the prophets saw afar off we now celebrate in present actuality: Immanuel. God did not leave all this brokenness unredeemed. He went straight to the very saddest thing of all—our separation from Him—and He made it untrue.

~

Sorrow isn’t meaningless, and it isn’t permanent. But it’s tempting to think He owes me something for all this sadness. Okay, I reason with Him, I know there’s beauty in the bad. Now do something good.

Which only goes to show how much I have to learn.

Last year's plum pudding

~

Advent, like grief, is such a keen time, loaded with expectations and longings for impossible things. Advent is audacious with hope; it is pregnant with miracle. Which is why, I believe, it’s also haunted with the inconsolable sting of the way things ought to be. More than any other season of the year, perhaps, we feel our loss and our lack; we grieve alike for things that are no more and things that never have been. We all want our own Christmas miracle, our own personal annunciation and supernatural fulfillment.

(I want my Daddy back. So bad I can hardly stand it.)

But when God comes to us bringing good, it’s usually not what we expect.

Jesus’s birth was exactly not what people were expecting.

And yet, God in Christ flung Himself over the chasm between the way things are and the way things ought to be. This yearly celebration of that fact gives all of us permission to acknowledge the paradoxes and seeming discrepancies of life—to open our hearts and hands to the life that is, to the gifts just waiting to be mined in our present circumstances. To the Light the darkness just cannot comprehend or overcome, and the Dawn that knows no setting.

Fra Giovanni was right: No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in today.

So was Wendell Berrry: We live the given life, and not the planned.

And yet we will rejoice. We will rejoice and rejoice and rejoice because He didn’t do it our way. We will honor the re-routed life of an obscure young Jewish girl and we will search our own hearts for the least glimmer of such trust. We will drag live trees into our homes, knowing full well we’ll be cleaning up needles and sap for the next twelve months, and spangle them with some of the most beautiful and breakable things we own. (I mean, think about it—it’s gloriously ludicrous!) We will stand in drafty cathedrals choking over carols we’ve known all our lives while angels throng the air around us. We will wear ourselves out over holly boughs and flour and spices and prickly cedar and roses and cakes and casseroles and Yorkshire puddings as if our King were coming for dinner. We will remember more lighthearted days, when we thought things would be like that forever, and we will smile at our beloved ghosts and thank God that those days have been. We will cherish that bright sadness hovering over the crèche in the corner of the room, and lean into the Story all over again. We will step out into the frosty silence of Christmas Eve and look at the stars and suddenly find them brilliant, elongated, expanding under a quick burden of tears.

(Perhaps we will even steal down to a barn at midnight, if we happen to have one handy, just to see the animals kneeling.)

We will, if only for one miracle-laden feast of days, draw near to the greatest mystery of all time: God is with us because He loves us.

Dancing with Daddy at my Christmas party, 2005

~

Isn’t that just the astonishing thing about Christmas—that after all the centuries of hurt and brokenness and disappointment and despair, the world still turns itself upside-down for joy?

As the years pass, I’m less and less concerned about getting caught up in the trappings of the season for their own sake. More and more I’m thankful for all these very touchable, tangible ways to honor the mystery, to draw near with all my senses, to create a space—through ritual and tradition, taste, touch, scent, sight, sound—for eternity to intersect with domesticity.

It’s not just commercial to celebrate Christmas, or indulgent, or naïve. It’s brave, friends. It’s courage incarnate.

~

If you’re hurting this Christmas, know you are beloved of a God whose special concern is the brokenhearted.

If you’re rejoicing, don’t let fear have your joy, even for a moment.

And know that you, all of you whose eyes may happen to fall on these words, are dear to me. For you I pray on this frosty December morning, that, now and forever, your day may break and your shadows flee away.

"There is radiance and glory in the darkness, could we but see--and to see we have only to look." ~Fra Giovanni