There is a Narnia

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

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

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

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

And the winner is…

December 15th, 2015

It is my great pleasure to announce that the winner of “The Art of Tasha Tudor” giveaway is none other than…

Elyce Westby!

Congratulations, Elyce! If you will send me your mailing address via the Contact Form on the web journal or the bookshop, or a private message on the Lanier’s Books Facebook page, I will get your book in the mail to you posthaste! :)

And I mentioned this in the comments on the previous post, but I want to thank everyone for their lovely comments and excellent Christmas book recommendations! I’m delighted with the enthusiasm everyone brought to this little giveaway. You’ve given me so much excitement for the future of Lanier’s Books.

If you haven’t yet, do peruse the comments others have left. You just might find a new Christmas favorite! :)

Tidings from the Bookshop!

December 10th, 2015

I have such happy news today: after weeks of work (mostly on my husband’s part), the Bookshop has received a massive update and overhaul!

I am so excited to introduce all the changes we’ve made. One request I’ve consistently heard over the five years since I launched my shop was for the introduction of a shopping cart, and I’m pleased to inform you all that this wish has been granted. Now you can select multiple titles to add to your Shopping Basket, as well as automatically save on shipping and handling when you purchase more than one book at a time. We’ve added mobile support for ease of access and use, as well as a database of authors I love. And when you click on an individual book, you will find an information button in the top right-hand corner, which will direct you to a short bio of the author, as well as other books of theirs in inventory.

It’s been so much fun to integrate all these changes (and there are a few more forthcoming!), and I simply could not wait to share it with you.

And the best news? New inventory!

I have a whole new crop of beautiful books I have been waiting to release, including many rare and collectible titles by our own dear Elizabeth Goudge. (If you visit the Browse Books page you will be able see them all by clicking on the Recent Additions button.) I have to admit, there are a few among them I’m finding it difficult to part with, but that’s the joy of this whole undertaking: getting books I value into the hands of those who will value them equally.

Here are some of the highlights:

A hard-to-find first American edition of God So Loved the World, Goudge’s biography of Jesus.

The Ten Gifts, Mary Baldwin’s excellent sampling of Goudge’s works, focusing on the ten gifts of Love, Wonder, Beauty, Delight, Compassion, Understanding, Faith, Tranquility, Truth and Courage.

A Severe Mercy, Davy’s Edition, complete with six pages of photographs and color frontispiece.

Towers in the Mist, an enchanting Elizabethan story of Oxford, and The Castle on the Hill, a West Country wartime tale—both by Elizabeth Goudge, both quite rare (particularly on this side of the Pond!) and both from England.

I also have a couple of copies of Song of Years (my favorite Bess Streeter Aldrich book), as well as her beloved volume of holiday stories, Journey into Christmas.

There’s an English printing of Pilgrim’s Inn—published as Herb of Grace in the UK, three copies of Goudge’s autobiography (The Joy of the Snow), and two English printings of The Heart of the Family, the third book in Goudge’s Eliot Triolgy.

And don’t miss the sweet copy of Kate Douglas Wiggins’ The Birds’ Christmas Carol.

That’s a start. But I do want to add that if anyone is shopping for Christmas presents, books shipped via Media Mail as late as Wednesday, December 16 ought to get there in time for Christmas Eve. I can’t make any guarantees, of course, though it’s been a reliable service in the past. If anyone is interested in upgrading to Priority Mail, please feel free to let me know via the Bookshop Contact Page and I will be happy to give you an updated shipping estimate.

(One more thing: to avoid disappointment, please keep in mind that placing a book in your Shopping Basket does not remove it from inventory. Only when a book is purchased does it disappear from the shop.)

And as a final treat, in honor of this relaunch of my Bookshop (I can’t believe I’ve been doing this for five years!) and in celebration of the happy realization that I’ve been writing in this space for ten years (!), I’m offering a giveway: a lovely copy of The Art of Tasha Tudor, a candid celebration of the life and work of one of the greatest illustrators of our time (and one of my endearingly imperfect heroines).

To enter the giveaway, simply leave a comment and tell me the name of your very favorite Christmas book. (And, just for fun, let me know how long you’ve been reading here. :)) Comments will remain open until Tuesday, December 15, at 10:00 am, at which point I will randomly select a winner from among the entries.

I will update this post with the name of the winner, so be sure to check back on Tuesday morning!

Thank you, so very much, for being a part of this journey with me. The sense companionship I feel when I publishing something in this space has given me courage to keep moving in the “direction of my dreams.”

Much love and Advent blessings to you all!

House of Feasting

November 20th, 2015

I appropriated Daddy’s old hunting jacket for my barn coat. It still smells like him; every time I put it on it’s like he’s putting his arms around me. Some days, this fills me with a warm, gentle joy; others, it makes me want to pound my fists and rail against death. I don’t want his things—I want him.

“Death is our friend,” wrote Rilke, “precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love.”

As I’ve said before, I think death is the most clarifying force in the world; it awakens such a keenness for life. Everything in us rebels against impermanence; it’s no wonder that philosophers have wearied themselves since the beginning of time over the tension between the limit of our lifespan and our yearning for perpetuity. We’re made for Forever—it’s written on our hearts, Ecclesiastes says. And death brings it so blessedly near. We start to reevaluate everything in the light of this undeniable presence and this inconceivable eternity. The light is blinding at times, but it makes everything so much more real.

I understand why the Victorians gave themselves a year of mourning. While it might seem stuffy, repressive, morbid to our modern tastes, I can’t help but feel their approach was healthier than the hurry the grieving are subjected to in our society. Our grandmothers and great-grandmothers were at once more respectful and less afraid of death than we are, I think. Grieving takes time; it’s messy and rough-edged and unpredictable. It’s shot through with unexpected sunlight, and it will swallow you whole in a sudden thunderstorm of despair. It makes you strong, and it makes you vulnerable, and it tinges your joy with wildness, as of of all things born in sorrow.

Seeing what grief is really like makes me want to go back and apologize to all of my friends who have lost parents—I’m so sorry. I had no idea it was like this.

But these same experienced friends have given me wonderful advice: It looks different for everyone; take all the time you need; be gentle with yourself.

I’m trying.

I hit a really rough patch at the three-month point. The sadness and the finality of the thing just pulled the rug out from under me. What’s more, that clear, calm sense of the nearness of heaven started to fade. The veil didn’t seem so thin anymore; it didn’t feel, as it had before, like Daddy was just in the next room of a lovely mansion. The darkness grew so thick; the sadness smothered out the sun. I felt chained to earth; I felt despair clap a clammy hand over my mouth.

It was almost as if he’d died all over again.

I’m definitely at the self-conscious stage—it’s hard for me to be so honest, even here, even among such friends. But this is what my landscape looks like; this is the weather of my soul. The sense of loss is spreading like a dye through the waters of my life, and nothing remains untouched. I’m so glad there’s a good, strong word for it: Bereaved. An adjective and a noun. It makes me feel less conspicuous, somehow, to have a name like that to hide behind for a space.

And it fills me with hope to remember that God often changed people’s names in the Bible after a life-altering experience. This name isn’t permanent; this barrenness isn’t forever; these wounds aren’t disfigurements. Beauty will be given for ashes and mourning will be turned to dancing. My words feel so clunky and hard-wrung and ill-fitting against such tremendous realities, but perhaps even they will be changed someday. I don’t know.

But I do know that if sorrow is a houseguest for the night, joy shows up in the morning. I know that those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. I know that joy is my birthright as a child of God. And while all these solemnities gather round, I know there’s a great belly-laugh of fulfilled purposes welling up in the heavenly places at this very moment.

And there’s a glint on the horizon. When the afternoon sun pours into my kitchen windows these days, it slants at a new-but-old, late-Novemberish angle, lighting on the old pine cupboard in the corner. I love that piece; in a way it’s the heart of our home, sitting very near the centermost joists and walls, built by the son of the man who built this old farmhouse. The shelves behind the wavy glass are lined with Willowware and oddments I picked up in England, and on the notched workspace reposes the old, dented silver venison dome that accompanies our most festal occasions. (Remind me to tell you a funny story about it someday.)

I look at that cupboard, bathed in gold, with the delicate etchings of tree shadows wavering over its honeyed surface, and something very like excitement ruffles its feathers in my heart. I’m ready for those stacks of plates to be in service, for the incense of woodsmoke and spice to permeate my rooms, for fuss and bother and secrets and little sacrifices.

I’m ready for the bright, glad burden of December to rise on the darkness of the world, for the excess of love and fellowship, the Light shining out of darkness. I’m ready for my rooms to fill, my heart to overflow.

I’m ready for a Feast.

Do you remember how the first sign that Aslan was on the move in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, was the appearance of Father Christmas, doling out presents and pots of tea? That image is so symbolic to me—just like the creatures in ice-bound Narnia, what I need at the end of this long winter of a year is Christmas.

It seems so incompatible with grief, doesn’t it? The House of Mourning has little to do with the House of Feasting—or, so it seems at first glance. But as my friend Kelly so exquisitely put it, “Anytime you sit at a table with those who share your conviction that Jesus is returning, you declare war on the lies of this … mixed-up, passing-away, broken world. You reinstate the truth of creation, joy, and all things made new.”

My darling Laura articulated the mystery in her own inimitable way: “Seasons come; seasons go. Sadness overstays, but hope, thank heaven, proves most tenacious of all.”

Every feast is a waging of war on sadness and broken things. Every glass raised in fellowship is a declaration that death doesn’t get the final word. Every act of love is a song of hope.

I long—long!—for new life to spring up out of the ground of this death.

But Christmas tells me it already has.

To the Kingdom, friends!

Autumn-Anthem

October 26th, 2015
I composed this sonnet for my poetry writing class at Oxford last fall. Something about all the yellow leaves swirling outside my window this October morning made me think of it again…

Lift, lift up, your molten-maple gladness, trees,
Your ambered arms and age-wracked fingers ringed
With yellow gold! Cerulean sky, your firstborn sapphire sing!—
As down your favor kingly falls on all you see.

Beneath blue hazes, violet-veilèd meadows dream, till seized
With wakeful western fire, upstirring wingèd
Embers from the brume. To Grace in all this glory, rememb’ring
Earth lifts chaliced ‘thorn, decanting praises on the breeze.

Dear dying world, such seasoned glories seem twice fair
As those with which your youth was clothed in April’s mirth.
This death a likeness of that sorrow none could bear
But He; this beauty vouchsafe of that birth
Which follows death. Mark, my soul, such sweetness in the air!
What secrets in decaying leaves and sodden earth!

House of Mourning

October 5th, 2015

"This is not my landscape now, where I find myself without you. Oh, I never knew you from the sun." ~Karen Peris

My father died two months ago.

Apart from a few stilted sentences on Facebook, I haven’t known how to frame those words in this space. I haven’t known how to frame any words, really. My journal swells with a stream-of-consciousness torrent—explosions of anguish, swirling eddies of joy. I’ve stitched together a ragged story of things I never want to forget and things I so violently wish were not true.

But, for all that, I haven’t known what to say. I stand before this awful, stone-faced reality called death, and words are the most futile things in the world, like butterflies hovering around a grinding millstone.

A friend asked gently over tea the other day if I didn’t feel like a tsunami had hit my life, smashing and then washing away everything I once thought permanent, immutable. Safe.

Yes, yes that’s exactly how I feel, though it took her intentional and empathic imagination to name it.

I feel orphaned. At 41 years old, I feel like a child cast adrift on an unfriendly sea. I feel so bewilderingly vulnerable, so disoriented. It’s the strangest thing: all through Daddy’s illness I was mamma-bear motherly, as protective of him as if he were my child. But the minute he was gone—and I mean the very minute—all that collapsed. I was four years old, and I just wanted my Daddy. It was as if the past few years and all the trauma they held had never been. I wasn’t prepared for that—for the onslaught of memory and frailty and fear, nor for the blinding mercy that so instantly gave him back to me as he had always been. I welcomed it, opened my arms as it were to that searing flood. But it nearly swept me away.

Our culture is so inoculated against grief. We’re assured in whispers that it will get better, don’t worry, just give it time. But everything in me rebels against such a “hush-hush” approach. I haven’t the least doubt that it will get better—I do not grieve as those who have no hope, and this story is not over. The only thing I’m afraid of is not doing the thing properly; of not grieving thoroughly, in a holy, healthy way. It’s the last thing I can do for Daddy this side of heaven. And it’s where God is meeting me with treasures of darkness undreamt of in my innocence of grief. I don’t want to miss anything, excruciating as it is.

I wouldn’t go back to that time before my induction into this league of loss—I wouldn’t be again the girl I was before this sorrow broke me, shining its piercing light on my naïveté. I carry that girl in my heart—she will always be a part of me, and I will always need her hope, her wonder, her ideals. Yes.

But I need this acquaintance with sorrow, too. I need my heart joined to the great sorrow of the human race, the rage against death, the longing for all this sadness to come untrue.

I’ve feared for my faith the past three years. I’ve rebelled against and then dully accepted the silence of God. I’ve gotten used to it, in a way.

And then grief comes and rips the scab off the wound, demolishes with its tidal wave of finality every last defense with which we’ve learned to protect ourselves. We’re bleeding and breathless—and still the silence remains.

Only the grieving know this, and do no fear it.

Only on this side of death—the death of one of the greatest forces in my life—do I know just how utterly unshakable are my beliefs about life and death.

Only now do I know just how deathless life and love really are.

Only now do I dare to hope just how close God really is to the brokenhearted.

I don’t always feel it. The seeming of His absence throughout this ordeal has been horrifying at times. And yet—Something has caught me every single time I started to sink; Someone has held me when I couldn’t hold on. When I walked into the room moments after Daddy died (another heartbreak I can hardly speak of—I wasn’t there), an electric current of certainty seized my heart.

He’s not here, sang something deep inside me, something deeper than belief, more relentless than confidence. Everything—everything you have heard and believed about life and redemption and eternity is absolutely true. For the love of God, it’s all true. He’s not here—and yet he continues to be!

“Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity, and so very absent a help in time of trouble?” C.S. Lewis asks in A Grief Observed.

Of course, the same thing happened to Jesus Himself. The Man of Sorrows is intimately acquainted with that particular grief.

But perhaps a larger question for me is—Why do I question Him for bringing grief into my life, but never question with equal wonder and awe just why He would bless me so much?

I had—have—and extraordinary Daddy. I’ve never had a problem with the Fatherhood of God because my earthly father represented Him so well. I can hardly bear the thought of the rest of my life without him, but I’ve got a lifetime’s well of love to draw from. A friend who lost his dad years ago comforted me with the fact that the power of Daddy’s influence over my life would never be lost.

“I promise you,” he said, “you’re only going to see that influence grow and mature over the years. You’ve only begun to see the ways his love has shaped you.”

(He also told me to quit worrying that I would ever forget the music of Daddy’s laughter, or the sound of his voice. “It’s with you for life,” he said. “And it won’t always hurt.”)

Now I understand why the writer of Ecclesiastes says a sad face is good for the heart: I doubt there’s a more clarifying force in all the world than death. Clarity hurts. But I want to press in hard before it fades even the tiniest bit, before life tries to catch me in its current again. There is beauty and joy on the other side of loss. If I didn’t believe that, I would go mad. But I cannot believe that any of this is meaningless. The very life inside me will not permit it, nor the Spirit within my heart crying, “Abba! Father!”

I’ve tried to be very intentional about my grieving rituals, in a Lenten-like spirit exploring this loss and all the ways I want to live in the light of Daddy’s life and death. The legacy he left behind is simply staggering; the people whose lives he touched apparently limitless. The night of the visitation, the line at the funeral home went down the hall, out the door and around the block. And every single person there had a story to tell of how his joy had infected them with courage or hope or redemption.

That kind of life is not lived by accident.

And it’s not lived in vain.

I’d love to recount all the ways that Jesus has been real to us in His people these days. All the ways He has caught me in the dark and told me He is here. Perhaps someday I will be able to. But for now, I want to assure you, friends, that He’s doing it. There’s this daily punch-in-the-gut realization that nothing is going to change the fact that my Daddy died of a catastrophic illness at a young age—and with it comes the desperate longing to go back undo the tragedy of it all. But I believe, in ways I cannot understand or articulate, that God is doing just that. That His mercies are retroactively redemptive.

“Son,” he said, “ye cannot in your present state understand eternity…That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.” C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

I also want to take this opportunity to extend my most whole-hearted thankfulness to those of you who have reached out with such extraordinary kindness and sympathy. It hurts me that I haven’t been able to respond to everyone as I’ve longed to in this season—time and words have been in such short supply for so long. But I want you to know what your kindness has always meant in this place, and especially now. Your notes, emails, messages—all have been like rain in a parched land. Please know if I haven’t replied to your words, I most certainly have not forgotten them.

Under the Mercy,

~Lanier

All things new

April 24th, 2015

Sunset, Good Friday

I’m sorry to have been so silent, friends.

For the first three months of this year, it was a silence born of utter extremity. I wanted to write, but there simply wasn’t time. Between the rigors of an intensely challenging class load, and the demands, the exhaustion, the decisions, the red tape and the long heartbreak of a terminally ill loved one, I didn’t seem to have a second that was not spoken for. It was a dark winter in many ways—lit, to be sure, with the grace of an unfailing Presence, but I’ll be honest: there were times when I didn’t know how I was going to make it. We’ve seen some pretty bleak hours of late, and Philip and I have exchanged more than one long look of quiet, weary despair. But I want to affirm something here, both for your encouragement and for my own remembrance: every single time I was more-than-tempted to lash out at God with an angry “where are You?”—every single time the waters started to close over my head—a strong arm reached out to grab me. I mean every single time. It might be a new, albeit tender, light cast on a well-loved Psalm, or the unlooked-for arrival of the red-winged blackbirds filling my winter world with song. The darker sonnets of G.M. Hopkins are forever endeared to me after this long stint in the shadow, and the music of Andrew Peterson and Eric Peters is more meaningful than ever. But here’s the thing: nine times out of ten, that rescuing hand was the grip of a friend. Phone calls, notes, grace-laden words, breathtaking acts of kindness—these are the ways Jesus has held me (and Philip, too) of late.

I remember one night in particular that just seems to epitomize the kind of instinctive, intuitive caring I’m talking about. We were hosting a dinner party back in February that I was too exhausted to attend, much less preside over. It was one of those days I just wanted to hide, I was hurting so badly. I was feeling many things: sorrow, weariness, anger over Daddy’s suffering and the complexity of the situation and the brokenness of the world. But mostly, I was feeling abandoned. The darkness felt permanent—like a long Lent, with no Easter in sight. Calmly, deliberately, I set the table and prepared my portion of the evening’s repast, all the while feeling like my whole body was made of lead. When the doorbell started to ring things got better, of course. Soon the rooms were snapping with firelight and conversation, and I remembered anew what good medicine good friends always are.

And then, my friend Katie walked in.

I will never forget the sight of her, standing there in my dimly lit hall, wrapped in her grandmother’s fur, a knowing smile on her face. She was dressed with characteristic Hepburn-esque style. And her arms were full of yellow roses.

“We’ve all had a long winter,” she said, gazing around at the other ladies who had clustered upon her arrival. “I just want all of you to know that spring will come. And that I’m praying for you.”

She then proceeded to pass out a ribbon-tied bouquet to each of us, handing mine over with a meaningful look. My thanks tangled in my throat and tears burned my eyes. But what I couldn’t articulate to her that night was that those roses were a tangible symbol of hope. A whisper from God that He loves me, that He knows how much I am hurting, that He cares, in ways I can’t begin to imagine.

And you, dear readers and friends, have been a part of that caring. I may not have managed to personally respond to each of your astonishingly generous notes, emails or comments, but I want you to know with all my heart what they have meant to me. I think we can’t imagine, until we’re hemmed in with grief, just how life-giving a kind word can be. So thank you—thank you for being a part of the way God is loving me these days.

Looking back, March was a physical impossibility. But, in the grace of God, I completed all my coursework (though I didn’t turn in one paper this term that wasn’t finished at 3am on the morning it was due!), and managed to sneak up to Nashville towards the end of the month to speak at a conference I was deeply honored to be a part of. Most importantly, however, after weeks and weeks of fear, uncertainty and excruciating decisions, we reached a resting place with my dad’s care plan that’s given us tremendous peace. God has provided for him in truly amazing and tender ways, and while I’d do anything to undo this cruel disease and make him well again, there’s no doubt that goodness and mercy are attending him through this dark valley. There’s nothing—absolutely nothing—natural about death: I’ve never seen that so clearly as now. But I’ve also never been so astonished at the particularity of the love of God. Jesus never asks us to cross a river He hasn’t forded or to face a foe He hasn’t already defeated.

(“I feel beaten,” I texted a dear friend back in mid-March. “You’re not beaten,” she answered right back. “Just bruised.”)

And so, in the midst of deep sorrow, April came in with its old flush of hope and promise. On Easter morning we greeted the dawn with a clutch of close friends, gathered in the west pasture on blankets and quilts, our mittened hands wrapped around steaming cups of coffee. Our hymns and prayers mingled with a riotous choir of birdsong and rooster crowing and peacock screams, as if the fowl of the earth and sky had all beat us to the glorious secret and were bursting their hearts to tell the world that He is risen, indeed. An enormous opal moon went down behind us as the sunrise cracked the rim of the east, and I watched the golden tide spill from the treetops with an answering warmth rising within me: ageless as spring; indomitable as the sap charging through the mighty oaks and walnuts overhead. It’s true, friends—He does make all things new: every Easter, every morning, every moment of this bewildering, heartbreaking, beautiful life. We’re walking a stony path, to be sure, but even when this chapter is finished, the Story won’t be over. And, in the meantime, I can’t help but notice that the verges of this way are starred with violets, and that the hedges on either side are alive with a music too jubilant for human speech.

After our little service we had breakfast on the patio: hot cross buns and cheese Danishes and mimosas and lots of candy—because if Easter isn’t a reason for a party, I don’t know what is!

Since Easter, I’ve been in something of recovery mode: between terms, and breathing a little easier on Daddy’s account, I’ve taken my days more gently, sitting out on the front porch for long stretches at a time, just looking at this miracle of a green and golden world overarched with kindly blue. I’ve tried to write, in this breath of calm, but the words simply would not come—my soul was still too tired. But after a few weeks of keeping reasonable hours, of sunshine and April rains and flowering trees (what miracle is that!—I wish I could sprout flowers at the tips of my fingers the way trees do!), the racing thoughts have stilled, the ‘panting feverishness’ has finally broken, and I feel like I’m picking up a bit of myself that I left behind nine months ago in all the haste of anxiety and emergency. There’s a new sweetness in the air, young from the dawn of time, and it’s stirring some of the ‘dearest freshness deep down things’ in my heart. I’m almost afraid to admit it’s happening, as we still have such a long road ahead. But I woke up this morning with an old and long-loved rush of enthusiasm, a fresh spring of creative energy and joy. I lamented in prayer that my words were not what I wanted them to be—not yet, not ever. Write anyway, the Lord urged.

And so, I’ve slipped into this space once more, to let you know that we’re allright, that, while the thorn is pressing in hard, we have the hope of a fresh crop of mercies with each day that dawns. And when we sit on the porch in the evenings, watching the sheep crop the tender grass or the peacocks put on a show of Arabian splendor, our conversation is laced with contentment, and we lift our wine or tea or San Pellegrino with thanksgiving.

Before I go, a bit of news:

Last weekend, we rescued my darling little kitchen garden from two years of neglect: within an afternoon, it went from a tangle of weeds to a proper little plot, planted with tomatoes, squash, zucchini and peppers. More delectables going in this weekend, but it’s really astonishing how much that one act of reclamation has leant its energy to our other endeavors. It really was one of the most redemptive things we could have done: every time I peer from the kitchen window, I’m infused with the reminder of the beauty and meaning snatched from ruin and decay that’s always at work in this world and in our lives—like a great secret running through our veins and urging life upwards through the soil of the earth. Come July, I’m sure I’ll be a little hot and bothered over slugs and squash vine borers—but that’s allright. There’s grace for all—even bugs and weeds.

Garden before.

Garden after.

Trinity term commences next week, and I’m eager to dive back into my Oxford studies. I cannot even begin to express how much I am loving my classes—in the midst of such a challenging season, it’s been a gift to have to compose heroic couplets, or read the Brontes, or write papers on the poetry of Wordsworth. I still can’t believe I get to do this—I never open my books without a whispered, “thank You.” It’s really just a tremendous experience. I love the way my heart begins to pound when I’ve encountered a new idea or a concept unfurls its potential before me. Really quite intoxicating.

A word on Poesy—I assure you, she has not been abandoned. Circumstances have rather re-routed her passage into the world, but I’m back on track with an updated release date in mind. Thank you all so much for your excitement over this project, and your questions: I’ll keep you posted.

And, finally, I just have to include the happy news that we have added a new member to our clan of Friendly Beasts: Flora Foxbane, the Great Pyrenees pup came to live with us back in January, and she has brought with her a world of merriment and altogether endearing doggie hijinks. She’s a year old now—we got her from a rescue organization, and we were her third home, not including the kind foster parents who took care of her until we came on the scene. To look at her, I absolutely cannot believe that anyone could give her up—she’s the goofiest, greatest-hearted girl you can imagine, and, when she stands still long enough, she’ll melt your heart with that soulful Pyr stare of hers. We’re completely in love, and Bonnie is beside herself with this new playmate. Diana the Brave is teaching her all she needs to know about being a proper livestock guardian (I’ve never in my life seen a dog with the work ethic of Di), and while the sheep are still a little leery, the goats have accepted her as one of their own. We absolutely love being a two-Pyr farm again.

That’s all for now, friends. Thank you, again, for your kind presence, both here and in your words, prayers and thoughts. I’m overwhelmed. God bless you all.

"What is all this juice and all this joy? A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning In Eden garden." ~G.M. Hopkins, 'Spring