New Books Today!

October 16th, 2013

illustration by Edward Ardizzone from Sarah and Simon and No Red Paint

I’m happy to announce that there are new books in The Shop today! I’ve added some real favorites, including several rare titles by Frances Hodgson Burnett and collectible volumes by Grace Richmond. I’ve also got two titles by Elizabeth Von Arnim, The Enchanted April and a beautiful copy of Elizabeth and Her German Garden. And, as always, there are the dear, familiar friends: D.E. Stevenson, Bess Streeter Aldrich, Temple Bailey, Louisa May Alcott… Do have a look at that lovely 1903 Jo’s Boys, complete with original dust jacket!

Happy browsing…and remember to sort by “Date Added” to see the new books.

illustration by Edward Ardizzone from The Little Bookroom

Sonnet I.

October 8th, 2013

I.

For Philip

Cicadas sing at midday, metal-bright
Murmur hymning indolence to earth,
While painted ladies dart in fevered flight,
Knowing of all most poignantly life’s worth.

Fond sunlight coaxes salt scent from marrow
Of warm-breasted marsh, and drows’d palms breeze-wake
With green rapier-rattle. An arrow
Pierces yet—Summer to her flight betakes.

A silver ribbon sparks athwart the blue
As homing cranes outdistance creeping cold—
The sight wrings cry from heart of mine, “I do
Not want death! I do not want to grow old!”

But, ah, my love, while you are you, and I
Am I, Love’s high summer shall never die.

Rambles

October 3rd, 2013

Well. Hello there.

I hardly know where to begin. After forty-plus days of retreat, I feel like my soul has had a thorough airing and scrubbing. Like I’ve been at once standing on a high and lonely mountaintop in a bracing wind and tucked securely in the cleft of a rock, shadowed by an Almighty hand. I have been caught between the essential bliss of solitude (wine to my introverted soul) and the supreme discomfort of having to face my own inadequacies. I have both reveled in my ideals and squirmed under my shortcomings. I have tried to be as intentional as possible in these weeks of silence, to ask a thousand questions and be content with the answers—and the lack thereof. I have folded my wings and brooded over a nest of honest contemplation, and it has been seriously one of the sweetest, clearest, sanest seasons of my life. I have had time to think, time to scrutinize what I am doing with my days—and why. Aristotle said that the unexamined life is not worth living. I would argue that the unexamined life is less living than mere survival. For the past couple of years, I’ve felt like I was in survival mode, suffering, as I’ve mentioned before, under the trauma of “too much.” It’s not theatrical for me to say that many of the expectations of modern life are traumatic to my psyche—it’s just an acknowledgement of my limitations, and a candid celebration of the fact that there is a way for me to live that is not antagonistic to the divine tailoring of my personality. Quite the contrary. I have come to see that being kind to my own soul is not only valid—it’s essential to my walk with Christ. Losing my place of peace means losing the place where I hear His voice, plain and simple.

Last of the summer grapes--when I came by next morning, the birds had polished them off.

But if these weeks have been quiet, they have also been crammed with things I love, and for that I feel most blessed. Since we’ve last met, I’ve gone to sailing school and gotten my Basic Keelboat Certification (along with Philip)—a long-held dream. I’ve been scribbling like mad—wrote myself into a lovely case of tendonitis, in fact. And…I’ve finished the typesetting on the next book to be published by Low Door Press! Details will be forthcoming, I promise. But for now I’m just simmering a bit in the happiness of that huge task completed.

I’ve also been gallivanting. Last month my sister and I stole away to a little beach house for a week, revisiting old memories and making new ones in a place that is beloved to us both. It has been years since we’ve gone away together like that—and never, if you’ll believe it, just the two of us. It was painfully sweet to have her all to myself for so many days. The whole thing put me in mind of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s visit from her own sister in the midst of writing Gift from the Sea–gift in itself to her solitude. Liz and I hardly drew breath from the moment we set off together in my little roadster, Happiness Runs—we took the back roads, weaving through all those sleepy South Georgia towns, revisiting scenes Liz hasn’t laid eyes on in over a decade. And then, the sweet island life, of sunsets and dawns, beach picnics and bike rides and sundresses. I’m so grateful that we were able to seize that time (somewhat impulsively!) and make it happen. I think we’ve instituted a yearly tradition…

Liz capturing the dawn in oils--I don't know how she does it.

And I’ve come again to my Island, my golden land that shimmers, marsh-skirted, like a dream on a blue sea. This place is truly my spiritual home if ever there was one: I speak less, but hear God more within these cloistered green shades. I’ve also come to realize the deep significance of warmth to my body and my soul. I can never seem to get enough of it, seeking that kind sun at every turn, drawing myself up to a heat that seems to seep down into my bones. I’m storing it up for winter’s long reign—though it hardly seems possible that there is such a thing as winter in this sunny land. But even here I sense the change stirring: there’s a tender new clarity to the angle of the light, and my blackbirds, which charm the summer air with sweetness, are noticeably absent. There is goldenrod fringing the beach path, and in the woods the beautyberries spark a magenta flame beneath the trees.

The morning commute

I’ve been writing here, too—working much on my novel. And this week, at Philip’s challenge, I wrote a sonnet. It was my first attempt at the form, and I was very intimidated. (I confided to him that I have always had this unspoken conviction that I wouldn’t really know how to write poetry until I tackled sonnets.) But this one has been growing in me for some time—since before my jaunt to the sea with my sister, I think.

I confess, it was hard going, but quietly exhilarating: all that word-wrestling in the peaceful grip of a beloved scene. I sat in the sun (of course) by the sea wall and hardly knew the passage of time. One morning, the pelicans were out in full force, crowding the dock like a gang of hunched old sailors before spilling out over the water in an amazing undulation of grace. There were gulls, too, and a kingfisher, dipping and fluttering over the marsh towards the trees. And I listened and listened, and looked with all my soul, endeavoring to describe in iambic pentameter just that clear sound of wind stirring in the palms overhead. I do so love the discipline of the sonnet form, the essential selectiveness of metaphor and image—no room for superfluity. I can’t help but feel that a healthy dose of sonnet-writing would improve my writing overall…

(I finished it today, in a last dizzy tumble of words. Perhaps I will share it, if I can work up the nerve.)

But, in the meantime, I just want to say that I hope this little ramble finds you all well and glad, and that as we move into this ambered season, may the balance of your year’s harvest grow bright before your eyes.

39

July 27th, 2013

I have always been a five year-old about birthdays. I love them, and I get very excited about celebrating the day that God in His mercy chose to give me life. The most ordinary things seem tinged with magic, and I pray I will never grow out of that. But I am also very awed by the shining, unwritten gift of a new year. There is something a little untame about the enormous possibility that stretches before me, and a deep unction rises to take responsibility for my choices in the spinning round of days to come—to name my year with purpose and intention and love. To mark each age with significance and deep attention to the subtle ways in which God is bringing me into my own, as a woman and as His child.

So, while all birthdays are important to me, this one seems especially so. Today, I enter the final year of my thirties. I’ve joked with Philip about how I’m turning 39 for the first time, but, in all seriousness, I’m not bothered a bit about growing older—I love the increasing freedom that comes with the passing of years, and the gradual shedding of non-essentials—be it the shedding of ideas or possessions or insecurities. My thirties have been a remarkable decade. I have had adventures and opportunities my 29 year-old self could not have imagined. It’s also been a quietly turbulent decade, in the good way that all true soul-growth is turbulent. I have been stretched in ways that sometimes seemed past endurance, and I have found God more loving, more tender, more unreasonably patient with me than I ever would have let myself hope He would be. My joys, too, have deepened into this widening space within, so that I begin to feel that all the tugging and pulling and broadening—which can be so uncomfortable in the moment—has only been God’s secret design of making room for even more joy.

And so, as I enter into this last year of my thirties, I want to pay close attention. To listen to the story my own life is telling me. To pause long enough to see a pattern and notice how divinely suited it is to my personality. I cannot help feeling that I am on the threshold of something very important, and I don’t want to miss it. One thing that has been growing on me steadily of late is the thought that I want to live this last year of my thirties the way I really wish I’d lived all of my thirties: namely, actively believing the things that God has said about me. Believing that God loves me as wildly and extravagantly and unconditionally as He does. Believing the names He has given me. Believing that acts of love, howsoever small, are undying. Believing that it’s allright to say ‘no’ to things my heart is saying ‘no’ to and to live in a way that, as Macrina Wiederkehr so beautifully put it, is kind to my own soul.

I have mentioned here before, to great empathy from my fellow introverts, a passage from Elizabeth Goudge’s A City of Bells, which I first encountered with a rush of tears and a burst of camaraderie, both for Goudge herself (whom I know the words describe) as well as her petite heroine:

Henrietta, at heart a contemplative person, enjoyed alarums and excursions for a short while only. For her a background of quiet was essential to happiness. It had been fun to stay with Felicity, to be petted and spoiled by all her friends…to have lovely things to eat and to go to the zoo whenever she liked, but it had completely upset her equilibrium and she felt as though she had been turned upside down so that everything that was worthwhile in her mind fell out. She, like everyone else, had to find out by experience in what mode of life she could best adjust herself to the twin facts of her own personality and the moment of time in which destiny had planted it, and she was lucky perhaps that she found out so early…

…she found herself listening only to the lovely silence and it seemed to her that in it she came right way up again and her dreams, that had deserted her in London, came flocking back, so that with joy she flung open the doors of her mind and welcomed them in. Never again, she vowed, would she live a noisy life that killed her dreams. They were her reason for living, the only thing that she had to give to the world, and she must live in the way that suited them best.

I am learning—again, and yet, as never before—how crucial it is for me to live in the way that suits my dreams, not only for my own equilibrium, but because this is the place in which I find God. When life gets out of hand—whether by excitement or stress or illness or over-commitment—two things happen in me, immediately and insidiously: I stop writing, and I stop dwelling in the peace of the love of God. You would think I’d see it coming, it’s happened so many times before. But it always takes me off guard and pulls the rug out from under my soul. I get muddled so easily, yanked off center by the varying forces at work in our age, and find myself wondering where my dreams went. Or, worse yet, wondering if they ever were.

It’s because of this tendency towards muddle (“Beware of muddle!” warns Mr. Emerson so poignantly in A Room With a View. “Though life is very glorious, it is difficult.”) that I am taking the passage into 39 very seriously. I am taking heart to look more keenly into the things that make me alive—and to guard them with my life. I am willing to own, perhaps as never before, that what may not be “too much” for another person is justly “too much” for me. I am learning that I am much more of a sailboat than a steel trawler, excruciatingly (exasperatingly?) sensitive to the breezes and currents of life, but that when my sails catch the wind of the love of God, my work becomes seemingly effortless. Becomes, in the words of Kahlil Gibran, “love made visible.”

In order to catch that wind, however, to know that divine conveyance, I must be out on the open seas with Him, riding wild waves of that Spirit which “blows where it listeth…,” in a solitude that can be terrifying at times.

In recent weeks, I’ve felt a desire kindling that seems nothing short of a dare:

What if, it whispers, you do indeed give the last year of your thirties to an unprecedented level of solitude with Him, for the love of God? Of communion and intimacy and wonder? What if you venture into the contemplative life you’ve dreamed of, a life that is a little more cloistered and a lot more loving? What if you actually took the time to recalibrate the compass of your life?

What if you took a Sabbath Year?

For me, a Sabbath Year means an intentional rest from the things that pull me off center, chief of which is my expectations of myself. It means laying aside, if only temporarily, some of the things I love in order that I may tend my soul more carefully. I’ve already made my little list of “offerings”, which, candidly, I’m excited about. (Though, equally candid, I’m tempted to say with each emerging item, “Ah, Lord! That too?”) But for as long as I can remember, I have not only admired, but panted after the monastic ideal: the dream of a cloistered heart that retreats from the world in order to love the world. More than that, even, a heart that values silence and solitude with God over all the “showier” aspects of religious life. A heart that is not afraid to love God extravagantly, whether other people see it or not.

I have been drawn towards this ideal for years and years, encountering its recognizable essence in the people I most admire with a gasping sense of validation and joy. And I have been drawn, likewise, in these foothills of my forties, into the conviction I need to segue into this Sabbath Year with the great Christian tradition of a 40-Day Fast. This whole idea has been growing on me since last week, when one of my best friends sent me an email that said, in all simplicity, “Go dormant, Lanier.”

All day yesterday I felt the longing growing within me, a living thing. A thing I am both exhilarated by and terrified of: the longing for the Great Silence. The specific longing to retreat for a time from the internet world and fully inhabit the smaller world of a bounded life . I realize, even as I’m naming it, that I’ve wanted to do this for a very long time, but I’ve lacked the courage. Suddenly, perhaps out of my great need, the courage is there, and the knowledge that the world is not waiting on tenterhooks for the next words to fall from my fingers and splash (or drip) out into the internet. It’s okay to be silent for a while.

And so, kind friends, beginning Monday, July 29th, I am going quiet on the internet. For forty days, no email, no Facebook, no Twitter (which I actually have no idea how to use anyway). No browsing about on Ruche and accidentally buying things. No obsessing over Instagram pictures. No drinking from the great, flowing fountain of words and ideas that make the internet such a miracle to me. I need to step back into silence and heal from the trauma of “too much” for a while. I want to use this time to pray for clarity and wisdom in the choices my husband and I are making with our lives, to remember what it means again to be a child of God. To not only hear His voice, but know what questions to ask. In short, to find my bearings once more.

And, that done, to put out to sea with Him.

I dearly appreciate all of you, and the ways in which you have contributed to my journey. Hobbit-like, I wish I could give every one of you a present for my birthday. But know that I am sending my great love out into the great world of this crazy internet, and that I am looking forward to connecting once more in a few weeks.

(I’d cherish your prayers, if you think about it.)

*Note: the Bookshop at Lanier’s Books will be closed from Monday, July 29 until Sunday, September 8. I will re-open on Monday, September 9—and hopefully with new inventory! Blessings, friends…

Mercies

May 28th, 2013

"And to dream can be to pray..."

This post has been brewing for a good long time. Ten years, as a matter of fact.

What follows is something of a personal retrospective, probably not of the least interest to anyone but me. Truthfully, it’s one of the most difficult things I’ve ever written—how to confine an important decade to a few paragraphs?—and more than once I’ve nearly given up the attempt altogether. As it is, I’ve refined it to death, wrestling over that balance between candor and abstraction (and taking myself far too seriously in the process). And for all that, who knows but that in the end I’ve succeeded at nothing more (or less) than an egocentric ramble. That’s not my intention; what I long to do is memorialize what God has done in my life, to mark this passage with an altar of remembrance and observe an epoch with deep attention and gratitude. Love compels me to try, while joy tugs, colt-like, against the reins of my limitations. At any rate, I’ve given it a go. The very fact that I feel obliged to open with such an accounting may serve as warning enough of the wanderings to follow…

It was ten years ago this Maytime that God started something in my life from which I’ve never recovered—and never want to. Anniversaries are important to me, and this May I’ve been blessed with ample time to take a long, backwards glance. To remember where I’ve come from; to measure my charts and check my course against where I’m going, where I want to go. For three weeks I have lived by the sea—really lived, in the way I first began to dream of a decade ago. I have put countless miles on my trusty Schwinn (Holly Golightly’s the name), traveling daily the same beloved paths, stretching over a gold and green salt marsh or winding beneath moss-hung oaks, each one a familiar friend. Kingfishers have been my comrades, and snowy egrets, and red-winged blackbirds with their liquid music like flutes coming through water. I have worn my hair in a ponytail and the same gorgeously-comfortable, perpetually-sandy, linen cargo pants (except on the days when I’ve donned my favorite, lucky writer’s frock: perfect shade of sailboat blue and works well on a bike) and I’ve pedaled off with a laptop in my backpack and my wicker bicycle basket stuffed with books and blanket, seeking some sunny refuge where I might warm the bones of my soul and weave a few words into the bargain. (I’ve literally followed the sun all over this island and I’m brown as a nut in consequence—all but my face, which I slather daily with SPF 20. Yes, I’ll admit, it looks a bit odd. I’ve also mastered the art of riding a bike with a tall Darjeeling in hand, for what it’s worth. What would we do without our cups of tea?)

And at the end of the day, we’ve stretched on the sand, my husband and I, or on a sun-gilt verandah in rocking chairs, sipping cocktails and reading books—or talking of books and the dreams they have kindled.

Desk for the day, May 2013

What is it that Thoreau said—“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book?” I certainly can. I have often thought that God all but placed a book in my hands that He wanted me to read, something that would unravel a bit more of the fabric of unexamined belief about Him and the world and other people—and myself. But ten years ago this May, I know He did. It was as if the Holy Spirit propelled me bodily towards the bookcase and pried open my fingers to receive a volume off the shelf. It was a book that had been sitting there for four years, ever since Philip and I had been married, and it was the story of a great love. But one of the lovers did not survive the book. This much I knew. And I did not want to read it.

When God gave it to me, however, I did. (We did, rather, for I firmly believe that this is not a book to be read by one spouse and not the other.) And it completely changed my life.

It broke my life wide open, broke my heart with joy and beauty, breathed a brisk wind into the sails of my deepest, most intrinsic, most instinctive longings. The book itself is so precious to me I can hardly bear to write about it. I feel so jealous over it, so careful for the pure, golden-hearted rose of friendship it extended to both of us—indeed, a sacred thing. It represents beauties to me which I could never articulate to another living soul but Philip. And that’s allright. I don’t need to in order to tell this story. But ten years ago, A Severe Mercy brought me to my knees—I type the very title with a catch in my throat—and from that low place, I looked upon Love itself.

I was in the midst of a real crisis of faith—though I didn’t know to name it such at the time—spiraling into a blackness of anxiety and depression such as I had never experienced my life. I think in my naivety I even doubted such a place existed for a lover of God—such deadly innocence!—though I had the whole counsel of Christendom at my back proclaiming otherwise. But to know of something is not to know it, and it was not until I felt the cold shadows creeping around me that I understood just how terrifying and unavoidably real a “dark night of the soul” could be. Looking back, I can see how the strain of too many years of perfectionism primed me for such a descent, how an accumulation of grace-less ideas about Grace had burdened all the “first, fine careless rapture” out of my walk with Christ. I was exhausted, body and soul, from striving to be and do and think and believe and say and exemplify everything that I was supposed to. Early in my teens, an older woman had extolled me for the example I was to the younger ones behind me, roundly exhorting me to “keep it up”. I know she meant well, dear heart, but I have always remembered those words with a strange sinking of the heart, a chest-tightening reflex of panic, expressive as it was of the pressure to perform that began to circle round me as a teenager—and threatened to choke the life out of me as an adult. At twenty-eight years old my health was breaking; anxiety was uppermost and fear had me by the throat. I was afraid of everything—of life; of my own desires; of love itself and its deathless grasp. When it came right down to it, I was literally afraid of God, in the unholiest sense. All that great, swirling sovereign power—and what might not He do to chasten these competing loves from my heart?

Dorset, England, September 2011

So, there I was, my scared, rabbity soul shivering in the darkness, almost too ashamed to ask for help. Almost—and, thank God, not a whit more. I cried into that void, and, instead of accusing, echoing silence, there came a strong hand to clasp and a presence so precious I had never known anything like it and a little gleam of light that made even the darkness dear—because it was Jesus Himself. Jesus like I had never known Him; Jesus, not mad at me for my brokenness, but sitting right down there with me in the middle of the mess.

It was into this “horror of great darkness” that A Severe Mercy entered my life. And here is what God began to say to me, by way of that book, in addition to the thousand other sweet influences that were wakened by it, all converging in a glad shout that echoed through every hall and chamber of my heart:

You cannot, you simply cannot love “too much”. Man or beast or life itself—it isn’t possible. Love cannot be contained or measured. It simply is and it is entire! Love madly, love with abandon, loved one. Open your heart to the ‘pain of too much tenderness’ and the sting of your own frailties. Only don’t exclude Me—that is all I ask— by your fears or your principles or your careful weighing of consequences. Ground your very human love in my great, boundless one, and do not be afraid.

He said much else that I’ve kept and pondered in my heart ever since, but this was the inciting flame—this freedom to love and this fury to live without fear. It changed the inner landscape of my life and would gradually affect the outer one, as well. I literally began to laugh for joy—right there in the midst of my pain—at the outlandish dreams that started to take shape: the things I suddenly knew I had always wanted to do, but had become too hagridden with convention to seriously consider. Dreams of books written and read; of studies and travels; of boats and music and poetry and the footpaths of England; kinships, liturgy, and a livelier life in Christ! Dreams more remembered than devised, it seemed, though I had never thought of some of them before. And in that deep remembering, I found something I had lost along the way, something so precious it had captured my heart with the love of Christ in the first place: namely, desire points.  Beauty beckons beyond itself. Longings, whether attainable or not, are sign posts to safe haven, the inconsolable sehnsucht that lures our hearts to the Love we’re made for.

There are a lot of traditions out there that imply (or outright teach) that the desires of our hearts are not to be trusted; that anything originating from the inmost being of man is wrong out of the gate and should be subjugated without question. I honestly had come under that persuasion myself, thanks to some fundamentally flawed perceptions of grace—though it took the demolishing of an ideological stronghold for me to realize how dark and tall and menacing it had become, like one of the infernal towers in The Lord of the Rings, casting an unwholesome shadow over the innocent pleasures of life. (I personally think that one of the most radiant moments in that whole trilogy is when Merry and Pippin are sitting amid the flooded ruin of Isengard, drinking plundered beer and smoking pillaged tobacco, celebrating the fact that if the darkness had not yet fallen utterly, it had taken a serious rout.) I do not believe that Scripture teaches or the character of God supports the notion that our desires are bad simply because they are ours. Of course, there are evil desires, desires bent on selfishness and cruelty, but that is not what I mean when I refer to the “desires of our hearts”. Even the most malevolent has some hook, buried howsoever deep, upon which that unseen line of joy can twitch.

In The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins is irrevocably drawn from the comforts of his respectable life into the adventure of a lifetime by nothing more or less than the song of uninvited dwarves, circled round his fireside of an evening. It was an ancient song, a song that roused latent ancestral longings he scarcely imagined to posses.

Then, Tolkien writes, something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and carry a sword instead of a walking stick.

For once in my life, I could identify with Bilbo’s yearnings and conflicted amazement. A holy restlessness had captivated my heart and unsettled all my calculations, and I began to wonder if I would ever know a moment’s peace again. All of these multitudinous channels of longing, broken loose by beauty’s light touch and running free towards an ocean of abundant living!

“What on earth is wrong with me?” I asked God, in a tumult of amusement one morning. We had just hatched our Airstream dream: a gypsy caravan that would make the Open Road our own. And I was amazed. The whole thing had been my idea—and I didn’t even like camping. Or so I thought.

Something Tookish is waking up inside you, God laughed back into the silence of the room. And I laughed with him. It was too late to do otherwise.

(Incidentally, we did chase down that Airstream, a 1962 TradeWind, dreamed up that summer and purchased that autumn for a song. And it’s in that very 24 feet of silver-sheathed simplicity we’ve made house so merrily all these weeks by the sea.)

Lexington, Virginia, August 2007

In addition, my ideals of domesticity, already ingrained, were deeply refined through all that sifting of light-pierced darkness, though it took a while to manifest in visible ways. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if it has manifested visibly, for much of my day-to-day life looks the same as it did before—only I don’t let my worth as a woman get muddled with how clean my floors are, or how many times I’ve vacuumed the refrigerator coils (never). And I leave stacks of books all over the house. A subtle, though fundamental, shift in perspective began to move beneath the surface of things ten years ago, an uncovering of identity from out of that broken place, and as perfectionism loosed its stranglehold on my life, I learned to breathe a new air, to embrace my home and the work I did there with a new significance. Increasingly, my work was not so tangled with image as it was dictated by love, which changed everything. It meant that I could leave certain things undone as freely as I could take up others. That one task was not ‘holier’ than another simply because it fit nicely into the groove of an accepted standard.

It was just as valid, I saw, to hammer out words on my laptop for people I would never meet as to give an entire day to preparing a beautiful meal for beloved friends. I gave myself permission to write, not for a few hours a week, but a several hours a day. Interminable chore lists languished, trumped by the lure of a poetry book or a garden sketch. I was homemaker, in the truest sense of the word, but not only that—and this little clause was vastly, wildly, magnificently important. I began to realize that my “deep gladness,” the gift I had to give to the world, was at once simpler and more complex than could be confined to one blanket term—simpler because there was suddenly no need to align myself with one narrow definition or another; more complex because I was, to my growing astonishment…more. As much scribbler and wayfarer and dreamer of dreams as housewife, sacred as that calling is to me.

Early in our marriage, I wrote an essay in which I attempted, most sincerely, to express the deep joy and satisfaction I felt in the making and keeping of a home. It was undoubtedly earnest, but, as most things seen at nearly a decade’s distance, wincingly flawed. I cringe now to think of some of the blithe assumptions, the poor word choices and slight know-it-all edge to my voice. (Oh, friends. When I’ve sounded like I have all the answers over the years, or even some of them, please forgive me. I don’t.) It’s not that I take my vocation any less seriously or hold my young passions in contempt—I’ve just lengthened my tent stakes, enlarged my thinking to make room for ideas and contingencies I hadn’t considered before. I no longer equate homemaking as the essence of my wifehood, but an expression of it—one among many— and that’s a terribly important distinction for me. Philip and I are co-heirs, co-laborers in this vision of our lives, co-adventurers. And while I refuse to attach any moniker to this wider calling (not sure there is one), I will swear to my dying day that there are no sweeter words in the English language (or any other) than husband and wife.

Welcoming Summer, May 2013

What’s more, I don’t assume that the essence of my personal obedience to God is so much expressed in how I love Him, as in the fact that I do love Him, practically and openly. And that if my way looks different from everyone else’s way, and theirs from mine—well then, perhaps we’re getting somewhere.

The words of poet Kahlil Gibran express beautifully the way I’ve grown to view my home and the lives lived in it:

Your house shall be not an anchor but a mast…

You shall not fold your wings that you may pass through doors,
nor bend your heads that they strike not against a ceiling,
nor fear to breathe lest walls should crack and fall down.

For that which is boundless in you abides in the mansion of the sky,
whose door is the morning mist, and whose windows are the songs and the silences of night.

Adhiraj and Panav

Flying and roosting; hangar and runway: these metaphors work better for me than long commentary to express how our home—and, consequently, our lives—look and feel these days. I’m less concerned with appearances as I am with experiences: encounters with God and the with holy, shining wonder of other souls. Loosening my death-grip on the control of my environment that I might embrace the unseen realities—and essential adventure—of the everyday.

Less dogmatism and perfectionism and any other ism, for that matter; more starlight and mystery and birdsong and paradox.

And less fear. I’m not afraid now to say that Brideshead Revisited is one of the top three favorite books of my adult life as I once was (crazy as that seems), or that I love a good gin and tonic almost as much as a stout pot of tea. Ten years ago I could not bring myself to tell anyone but my husband and my sister that I was writing, much less fling my words far and wide like scattered seeds. I can admit that I have a temper to rival Anne Shirley’s and that I believe to the very marrow of my soul that animals will be in heaven. These things may seem trivial (all but the bit about animals), but they represent a massive overhaul of grace in my life, a work-in-progress that continues to spread like a fresh, southerly breeze over the country of my heart.

It’s been a long gestation, this broadening of personal borders. And that’s just the terror (and the blessing) of letting your words out into the world: over time, other people get to see your stretch marks. Interestingly enough, it’s the occasional denigration I’ve encountered that has helped me refine some of these growing realities, which is gift upon gift, even though I am mortally afraid of criticism. But it’s the overwhelming kindness of people I’ve never met, people who take the time to listen and whisper that they understand (you, in short, whoever you are, reading this, God bless you), that gives me courage to keep creating and processing, scratching out one word and trying another. My heart has been in your hands again and again, and you have been so kind. I salute you with the profoundest gratitude and a deep, floor-sweeping curtsey.

And so, that plunge into darkness and the light that I found there was an experience I mark time from. Reading A Severe Mercy gave me back my Christianity as high romance, as beauty and longing and pilgrimage along which love might goad my heart with gladness. It helped me recover myself from a rubble of accumulated expectations, helped me see that my soul is more gypsy than I’d imagined. Most importantly, it convinced me that what I’m really longing for in all I love is Christ himself and that a life of love to him could be one of such adventure that the fairy tales of my childhood paled in comparison. Love God and do what you will, wrote Augustine so famously. I began, finally, to dare to believe that the two were not mutually exclusive.

All these glowing coals a single book stoked and stirred and breathed upon, and, afterwards, we read nearly every book mentioned therein—at least, the ones we hadn’t already, such a company of old friends! I bought and devoured books by Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers, Chesterton and, of course, Lewis, branching later into Evelyn Waugh and T.S. Eliot, as a matter of course. My mind expanded in pursuit of my leaping heart, chasing all these soaring themes of Christian thought which bore one unmistakable family likeness: God is not only as good as you’ve hoped—He’s better. I saw it everywhere, from the substitutionary love imaged in Williams’ novels, to the romance of Chesterton’s orthodoxy, to the steel-bright shrewdness of Eliot’s poetry. Such a spangled web of holy kinship! Years later, when I discovered the lectures of Peter Kreeft and the writings of Thomas Howard (our “American C.S. Lewis”), I was not a bit surprised to learn that these two men were chums of our old friend who started it all, Sheldon Vanuaken, author of A Severe Mercy.

One night last week we took a long walk along the shore. It was the most enchanted evening imaginable: little shreds of clouds in a star-scattered sky; a slice of moon lending a silver haze to the purple shadows; low tide, and not a single soul in all the world. We walked so far, with the waves lapping at our ankles and the lights of a neighboring island shining out across the way, that, suddenly, we were at the northernmost point, standing on the very peak of the land, as it were. To the right, lay the sound and the estuary flowing into it, with the bridge—my bridge, the bridge that carries me over all that water to the home of my soul—its lovely, graceful arches atwinkle against the dark sky; so familiar, so loved. It seemed to represent—seems even more so now, looking back—all that is dear to me of my past, where I have come from, the influences that have contributed to who I am. The experiences that have shaped my dreams, refined my hopes, and which I always seem to recover when I return to this place.

And to the left—the sea, limitless, unknowable, black but for the specks of light shining on the far horizon. Those who go down to the sea in ships… I saw hopes we’re gathering courage for: the wayside poems, the lure of unlost islands, the mountainous ambitions, and the hearthside songs of adventures remembered. It all was so keen, there in the wind at the edge of the world, as though we stood upon the shoreline of a tangible hope.

I have no idea what it will look like in a practical sense, even as ten years ago I had no idea where the influences then beginning to stir in my heart would take me. If anything, I have less answers and more questions, which is rather exhilarating than otherwise. But it’s been a grand adventure, a hoisting of sails and a breathless scanning of new horizons. I glance back over a wake of faithful Love; I inhabit the present with wonder. And I look to the future with awe, and a (characteristically) crooked smile.

The goodness of God staggers my heart; His mercies have stolen it utterly.

"Here's, Hail! To the rest of the road!"

Presence

May 24th, 2013

Like a white gull, caught in the cross-purpose of an opposing breeze,
I hang, suspended upon grief and this searing joy. Weightless, effortless,
aloft on these mercies, I hover ‘twixt heaven and earth, love greater even
than that which wrings my heart burgeoning beneath these wings.

Such gift, this graceful breath, inkling of the ageless I was made for. Ah, then!
unbound at last from Time’s enslavement, my heart will be home in Undying.
A liberated thing, from which sorrow has chastened the last temporal taint,
feathers sheathed gold in the sacred fire of that morning light. No tears shall spring
but they are summoned by joy, when all Love’s sweet satisfactions are complete.

Not yet, but the holy warmth of this early sun, stealing with summer gladness
over my upturned face, swears that such things will be—this and the shout of gulls
and the salt tang of sea, hinting verities scarce imagined. And while I wait—
here where yesterday rests most thankfully and tomorrow sleeps unthought of—
my soul is awake, keeping time, so lucid it might be heaven itself.

Here, where hope first found wings, hope rises anew, replumes, resurrects immortal.
Wounded with love, exultant in sorrow (for sorrow, after all, only means one has loved)
my cloistered heart rekindles to the day, inhabiting eternity in this present moment.
One great pulse of wings, one mighty cry of desperate joy, and I am off,

flying free.

inspirations and ambitions

April 12th, 2013

...No matter how many books one ought to be reading, nothing will do for an afternoon in April but the short stories of Lucy Maud Montgomery...

I’ve been reading a lot of Lucy Maud lately. Dipping into one of her novels or re-reading her short stories for the umpteenth time touches such a deep, elemental place inside of me. There’s something about the awakening of the world in spring that makes me long for the companionship of her words—words which awakened me as a child to the beauty of my own aliveness. I’ve never been the same since the day I picked up Anne of Green Gables. As I wrote in my preface to the Low Door Press edition of Kilmeny of the Orchard:

[Anne of Green Gables] touched a flame to the secret yearnings of an awkward and absent-minded and excruciatingly shy twelve year-old girl so that they flared into a glow by which I could see myself at last: not as a vicarious Anne, as might be imagined, but as the Lanier which God had in His heart when He dreamed me up in the first place. He had dreamed up everybody, I saw with a throb of freedom and joy. And it was allright simply to be the person He had in mind, however imperfectly one might keep pace with their companions.

I still get choked up when I try to tell someone what Lucy Maud Montgomery and her writings have meant to me. Spending so much time over the past week indulging myself amid the old friends of her stories has made me think hard about her influence, however, and that of other authors who have kindled my creative ambitions in truly life-changing ways. I’ve been reading and slowly digesting Twyla Tharpe’s The Creative Habit in an attempt to understand and harness my own artistic processes, and one of the exercises she recommends is a long questionnaire entitled “My Creative Autobiography”. It was a fascinating assignment, as she probes you to go back into your earliest memories, tapping the first springs of delight and imagination. At the risk of appearing to interview myself (which would be weird!) I thought I would share some of the questions and my answers in an attempt to express my appreciation to Montgomery and her counterparts in my life:

Which artists do you admire most?

L.M. Montgomery. Alcott, Austen, George Eliot. These are my big heroes. Also Elizabeth Goudge.

Why are they your role models?

For one thing they are all women who literally fought for their creative life. They all led very quiet lives for the most part, but they left an indelible imprint not only on literature, but on me. George Eliot worked under conditions of enormous social censure and she was also up against some mighty ferocious self-consciousness concerning her work. That always staggers me—that she was able to press through that, silence those inner voices. George Lewes had to shield her from all critical reviews of her work and he had to reinterpret her editor’s comments to make sure they were coming across as positively as possible. But she didn’t let this weakness keep her from writing.

Montgomery was clinically depressive, and I am astounded 1) that she was able to work at all, 2) that she put forth so many works of such great beauty, and 3) that these inner ravages never colored her work with a melancholy tone. She did not deny the shadows—but she focused on the light and the beauty that stood out all the more radiantly against them. Her books broke my heart with beauty and made me wildly joyful to be alive. The fact that she was hurting so very much (and in a time when you just couldn’t talk about it) and yet gave such gifts to the world and to me—I love her devotedly for that.

Austen just made it happen in a time when there weren’t a lot of female novelists, and still fewer truly good ones. And she was great, a giantess in a diminutive frame. She just sat in her little parlor and wrote what she knew and what she observed every single day. She changed the face of literature. And she ‘let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.’ I might just love that most about her.

Alcott was fearless and unstoppable. And she was able to write about virtue without ever descending to anything that even smelled like moralizing or preachiness. I don’t know how she did it and I don’t know of anyone who ever came close to her in that.

And dear Elizabeth Goudge. She gave me hope for the modern world and for the aliveness and wellness of beauty in this tired old era of ours. She wrote tenaciously of beauty in a dark time. And she is a mistress of expressing spiritual truths and realities without ever resorting to clichés or anything else that would make people dismiss her. She was incredible at that and I’ve learned of God’s heart and love in reading her books. I also love her beautifully flawed characters. The ones who are shy or who hate sickrooms or who bump the teacart over the carpet. They are all complex, they all have a past and inner demons. They are all so real that one can relate to them. But she never gives up on beauty.

What do you and your role models have in common?

Like Eliot, I am paralyzingly terrified of criticism of my work. It kills me.

Like Austen, I have no wish whatever to write of misery and despair.

Like Alcott, I want to be the Jo March she created, scribbling feverishly away in my ‘garret’. I want to be able to communicate truths about life and human relationships. And she’s my only American on the list—maybe that’s something.

Like Goudge, (and Dostoyevsky!) I believe that beauty will save the world. I believe that pointing people to beauty is essentially pointing them to God, whether they realize it or not. And like her I am pretty private and reserved outside of my sphere. I don’t like the business that has to do with an author’s life (or I won’t, I guess, if I ever become one) and I require enormous amounts of solitude in order to get anything done.

Like Montgomery, the beauty of this world broke my heart, and, like her, I can’t bear not to tell about it. She wrote of a place that she knew and loved intimately and she gave it to me and made me love it. She showed me that was what I was to do with my place.

~

This last question isn’t really related to the inspiring authors theme, but I couldn’t help tacking it on. Whenever I read over this answer, I get tears in my eyes. Although I dashed it off in a tare of writerly passion, I meant every word with all my heart.

What is your greatest dream?

To write something that would show someone else that God is as good as they have always secretly dreamed He would be. And more.

To create a world through story that would be a place in which other souls might encounter something of who God is—something they might not have otherwise encountered.

To awaken hearts with beauty. To carry cups of cold water to a parched, heartbroken, homesick world.

I want to write stories that tell the truth and that are laced and haunted with the beauty of Eden.

I want to do what my most beloved authors have done for me: not only point the way home, but throw light on the loveliness of the journey. I want people to read my stories and know that they are not alone.

Jesu, juva.

Feathers and Twigs

April 4th, 2013

“Is the spring coming?” he said. “What is it like?”
“It is the sun shining on the rain and the rain falling on the sunshine, and things pushing up and working under the earth,” said Mary.

~Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden


It’s rainy and cold today, but there are violets in the grass and the cherry tree is a bower of pink petals. And though the morning dawned grey behind the faceless clouds, a chorus of birds welcomed it as though it were the grandest miracle the world had ever known. Which, of course, it is.

I have been exultantly busy around here: writing every day, eeking out poems, reading a dozen books at once. (I usually travel around the house with a stack of them. I mean, you never know if you just might want Malcolm Guite’s sonnets when you’re heading out to warm your bones in a fickle, fleeting swath of early April sunshine. Or require Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit when you’re stirring something on the stove. Or realize just as you’ve eased your weary body into bed that the personal narrative of the Altamaha River you’ve been savoring is…upstairs. That will never do. When it comes to books, one must be prepared for all contingencies.)

I have also been hard at work on a project I dearly hope to share with you in the coming weeks, a long, heart’s-labor which, after many years, is finally on the breathless cusp of fulfillment. Details will be forthcoming.

In other news, life is going along gently here on our little farm. Every creature on the place, from impatient humans to contented hens, is nearly mad with longing for spring in earnest. In the days of sunshine we’ve had, our irrevocably spoiled Nubian does, Hermione and Perdita, have flung themselves across the pasture in the early mornings, wild with the joy of all that is to come, bouncing and cavorting in sideways jumps, rearing up on their back legs to play with each other. It makes my heart bound to see them. I seriously have to wonder if there is anything in creation more elegant than a trim little long-legged goat sailing over a green field gauzy with mist and dew, Nubian ears flying, feet scarcely touching earth. We had quite a terrible scare with our lovely Hermione last fall, a gravely dangerous brush with a rare condition that could very easily have taken her from us. When I see her now, I see a living witness to the kindness of God towards His creatures. Indeed, His tender mercies are over all His works…

Adhiraj and Panav, the India Blue peacocks, have feathered out in full glory as befits the season. It really staggers me to see how beautiful they are: how shockingly blue those long necks; how dazzling the gilt-hued feathers with their perfect golden eyes trembling at each tip. We have to be very careful these days to close them up in the henhouse at night, lest they take to the treetops to shriek out their lovelornity every hour on the hour. Let’s just say that if there were a peahen within any distance of us, she would have heard them by now. Nothing daunted, however, they will preen and dance and bow and vibrate their spangled tails like gigantic fans in the hand of a nervous coquette—to anyone who will admire them. (The hens seem to be their audience of choice, but those heartless biddies will strut right past, pecking along at the ground, without so much as an acknowledging glance. Hermione and Perdita appreciate the display, however. And the princes know they can count on an admirer in me—I am their abject slave.)

We’ve taken up a new regimen around here, a grain-free, sugar-free (and lots of other ‘frees’) lifestyle that is literally changing our lives. My mental recipe file has been turned upside-down, and while I’ve always tried to prepare nutritious meals, I’m finding that the energy that has come to me with doing what is best for us has incited a whole new love-affair with good food and healthy living. I am intoxicated on flavors and ingredients and new vegetables I’ve never tried. Such lovely timing, with all this gorgeous spring produce to tempt one at the farmer’s market! I have found tremendous encouragement and inspiration combing my friend Caitlin’s breathtaking website, Roost. (I made her Brown Butter Strawberry Cake for Easter and it was, in a word, sublime.) She makes such a celebration of all these careful, intentional choices, and underscores my own passion for beauty in the rituals of daily life. Beauty is not just for special occasions; it is most beautiful in the workaday hours of a common life, in the small rites and ceremonies and touches and pauses wherein we acknowledge that our little existence matters in the midst of a whirling cosmos. Making beauty can certainly avow to God that we love Him—but, perhaps even more, it shouts into our timid hearts that God loves us.

(Another Caitlin-borne gift that I just cannot help mentioning is her introduction to the Tata Harper line of skincare. I have been an old-school rosewater-and-glycerin kind of girl from my teenage years—I routinely raided my mother’s refrigerator and spice cabinet as a girl, preparing concoctions promising that “roseleaf complexion” Anne Shirley was always talking about. It wasn’t until I tried Tata’s products, however, that I found that serendipitous blend of natural and effective. They are all botanically based, with lots of gorgeous oils and emollients that smell like a flower garden on your face, and I am completely in love. I’ve realized that, despite all my efforts towards natural skin care, I have basically trained my skin to rely on the stripping and smothering process of the typical American beauty regime. It’s taken my complexion about a week to adjust to not having such violence done to it. But it’s thanking me. And the morning and evening routine has been so sweetly revamped: another little ritual to anticipate!)

Goodness! Such ramblings! A bird feathering her nest with anything at hand…

Anyway, with springtime waiting in the wings like a bride, I’ve known a growing sense of peace with the rhythm of my days. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that I’m no longer compartmentalizing my life into the sacred and the secular (much as I rail against that, I still do it), so much as just trying to offer myself holistically to God, entirely, like a bouquet, or a chalice to be filled. Perhaps it’s just that, at thirty-eight, I’m finally coming to terms with how God wired me and the lifestyle within which I can best know and love Him. Because, at the end of the day, it’s not how much we have accomplished that matters but how well we have loved, isn’t it? I’m learning (with such tender steps!) to give myself more permission to simply be myself; in the spirit of Mary Oliver (another tome I carry about from room to room) to simply “love what I love” and offer it to God as a prayer or a praise or a wordless song of love.

A blessed Eastertide and blossoming spring to you all. May we all hear God’s voice awakening us with this dear, old reborn world of ours:

“Arise, my darling;
My beautiful one, come away with me!
Look! The winter has passed,
the winter rains are over and gone.
The pomegranates have appeared in the land,
the time for pruning and singing has come;
the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.
The fig tree has budded,
the vines have blossomed and give off their fragrance.
Arise, come away my darling;
my beautiful one, come away with me!”

~Song of Songs

(All that remained of the Brown Butter Cake after the Easter feast.)

This is what joy looks like

March 25th, 2013


This is what joy looks like:

It looks like walking over the lawn in that time
of late winter’s striving with early spring,
when late afternoon and early evening brush fingers in passing,
throwing careless glances over shadowy shoulders,
and all the wealth of the sun’s golden fame has been heaped in the treetops,
mounted and piled among the far-flung boughs like plunder, forgotten—
or abandoned—in sudden flight. (Boys once sought a piece of this prize,
aiming their winged darts into all that opulence, hoping to see their arrow
gilded before falling to earth once more, transfigured.)

All earth holds its breath, waiting, for that one, clear, cold note;
for the ache of the thing that is surely coming; for the nativity of the world.
(You have forgotten to wait for it, sitting indoors with your fingers
interlaced, or kneeling to blow on bloodred coals yet smoldering upon a bed
of grey ash. But now you remember, stung alive by that keen air,
bearing tinctures of delicate things for all its rude handling—violets and tiny white feathers
and bits of blue shell at the foot of a tree. Forgetting takes time, but
remembrance is the matter of a moment.) It is then, when you have finally

opened your eyes that the miracle steals on tiptoe, lifting with smallest hands
the bank of heavy cloud which has sullened and saddened the earth all day,
throwing out in one radiant glance enough glory to christen the world. Thus known
and named, all things sing back themselves for sheer gladness, in flashes of
birdsong and music of color: Glory to thee and all thanks to thee, O Namegiver!
In that light, all is canticle and verse; all is wild tumult of praise: leaping serum
of veining sap and homing dove and bright cacophonous rooster’s crow!

And yet, the bird in the hedge falls silent, checked in his mad virtuosity
by that strange creeping splendor decanting itself like summer wine, casting a holy blush
over every living thing. It is in that moment, poised in perfection upon
the very doorstep of eternity, that you catch the echo of scarce-dreamed-of
desire, resonating down darkened vestibules, haunting the ventricles
and chambers of your heart. For one searing instant, you prize past all equal
the spangling of sun-shot tears trembling from the naked branches; the rising incense
of mist is more costly than gold, and that one aureate wisp caught among
the dark tresses of the pines far more precious—and then you know:

You are more alive than flesh and bone could ever hold;
more vital than body and blood and thought.

You are made for more
rapture than one life can contain.

I never lose me

March 8th, 2013

Margot Fonteyn as Odette in Swan Lake

I’ve lost count of how many times I have given up ballet.

Every time there has been a bend in my road, it seems, ballet has been the thing to go, flung off the back of the wagon with the sudden turning. Weeks, months—and in this latter case, years—have intervened. But it keeps coming back, like a faithful retriever that won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. And I have made room for it in my life again. Again.

Isn’t that just the way with the things we love—I mean deep-down love till they are a part of the very essence of our personalities? They keep popping back into our lives with a persistence that can be downright comical. And sometimes, as in my case with ballet, utterly humiliating. It has been seven (seven!) years since I pulled on my Blochs and walked into a ballet studio. Seven years since I’ve sunk gratefully into the deep stretch of a plié or thrown my leg up on a barre without a thought for the morrow. Seven years since that inglorious tumble that destroyed my right ankle and brought my weekly ballet classes to a screeching halt.

Away those seven years have flown: into travels and tramping, the new adventure of a barn-full of animals, the opening of a shop, gardening and beekeeping, and, more lately, the serious and sustained effort of writing a novel. They have been years of great growth and change, and my soul has been stretched in ways I could not have imagined. In many ways, I am not the same person I was seven years ago—and that is a good thing. We are not static creatures; we were made for ever-broadening horizons, for lands beyond the boundaries of the little maps we’ve sketched for our lives. I believe that we shouldn’t be too comfortable, reaching only for that within our grasp. As wayfarers in this world, we were literally created to reach for the stars.

All that said, I do believe, and firmly, that there are things which make us up as individuals that are unique and irreproducible—things that do not change. Leanings and loves and insights that are as distinct as there are human beings to divide them among. I love how George MacDonald put it:

As the fir-tree lifts up itself with a far different need from the need of the palm-tree, so does each man stand before God, and lift up a different humanity to the common Father.

When I was a child, there was a framed watercolor on my wall that an artist friend of my mother’s had painted for me, illustrating an Eve Merriam poem which she had rendered in gorgeous, sweeping script. It hung above my bed through all the room-swaps and re-arrangings over the years, from the time I was a baby until I left home as an adult. I have always loved it, and felt it to be a special charge never to lose myself amid the hurried homogeneity of the world:

Isn’t it strange
that however I change
I still keep on being me?

If I say “yes”, or If I say “no”;
If I go fast, or If I go slow;
When I’m at work, or when I’m at play:
Me I stay.

The greatest artists have always tapped their childhood obsessions and passions for inspiration, whether they emerge as recognizable in their work or not. And it is always a very grounding experience for me to remember where I came from and all the loves that have combined to inspire me to live creatively and joyfully. To remember my own name, as it were; to circle back, in all my wide-eyed exploration of God’s potential in this life, to the things that make me…me.

Ballet has always been one of those things. And, on a much more fundamental level, so has writing. When I was a little girl I used to make my own business cards by pinching a couple of my dad’s (they were, after all, just the right size) and writing on the back, along with my name and a rather unimpressive doodle of a pointe shoe:

Professional Dancer.
and Writer.

Over the years, of course, my passion for words trumped my love-hate relationship with pirouettes. Writing is how I interpret the world; how I make sense of my own life and reach out to other people. Sometimes, even, how I pray. Black words on a white screen are my love language, and can produce in me an excitement (or despair!) like no other endeavor. But there will always be a place in my heart for pink leather slippers and raggedy leg warmers. For the heart-melting loveliness of a grande pas des deux and for the joy of seeing a prima ballerina achieve that fairytale weightlessness that dancers have been pursuing from the first origins of the form.

For the satisfaction of utter exhaustion at the end of a thoroughly challenging class.

This past Saturday, I did it. I can’t say exactly what forces conspired to tip me over the edge into a decision to resume my ballet classes; all I can say is that it suddenly occurred to me that it was time to go back—that I wanted to go back—and before I knew what had happened, it was a done deal. Seven years kept haunting me like a refrain: I knew it was not going to be pretty after all that time. I tried to prepare for the coming ordeal by stretching out every day during the week leading up to my first class, but it did little to assuage my fears. For, you see, I found a warning my teacher had given me years ago to be all too (painfully) true: if once you walk away from ballet for any significant portion of time, all those muscles and ligaments and tendons you’ve fought so hard to lengthen will actually end up shorter than they were before. (Your body’s snarky little way of saying, Take that for treating me this way, perchance?) I was, um, horrified, at how much ground I had lost.

Natalia Makarova as Odette

It’s amazing the parallels to be drawn between physical rustiness and the mental lethargy that creeps over any absence from one’s craft. At the same I was deciding to throw myself headlong into the ordeal of a ballet class, I was wrapping up what proved to be a surprisingly arduous writing challenge with my beloved friend and partner in words, Laura. (Which will explain, perhaps, my long silence around here!) We had set apart six weeks, from mid-January to the end of February, to write like the wind on our current manuscripts. I was excited and motivated and starry-eyed…

…and shocked to find how out of shape I was.

I hadn’t so much as glanced at my story since before Christmas. It took me a good two weeks just to relearn how to sit quietly in a room by myself for hours at a time, and longer than that for my characters to start talking to me again. (I think they wanted to make sure I was in for keeps.) My heart was literally pounding when I pushed that last ‘save’ on Friday afternoon—whether from the exhilaration of crossing our defined finish line, or from the massive infusions of caffeine that had sustained me over the past few weeks, I can’t really say.

But it felt good. Good in the way it felt good when I staggered out of that ballet studio the next day on trembling legs. Even the glaring flaws in this wildly, unapologetically imperfect of drafts could not diminish the bone-deep satisfaction that it was done. Eight more chapters in the bag.

Likewise, the fact that my body didn’t seem quite inclined to do the things my brain was telling it to in ballet class could not detract from the delight I felt in recovering this piece of myself. The muscle memory, though corroded with disuse, was still there; the tactile satisfaction of that barre under my hands and the floor smooth beneath my feet was intact, unabated since I was eight years old, studying at that same school, executing my tendus and relevés and glissades for the formidable (and exquisitely ladylike) ballet mistress to the accompaniment of an elderly Russian woman at a piano in the corner. Thirty years, and still that very same joy. It was like meeting an old and trusted friend.

The morning after my class, I could not move. Getting out of bed was a nightmare; putting on my socks literally brought tears to my eyes. I didn’t know I could hurt like that. It would have been supremely tragic—if Philip hadn’t kept making fun of me.

“Don’t make me laugh,” I’d groan. “It hurts too bad!”

For three days I was a wreck. I crept around like I was about 1000 years old; the simplest of household tasks elicited a string of groans and whimpers. On the evening of the third day, I knew what I had to do—the last thing I felt I ever wanted to do:

I got my aching bones down on the floor and started stretching out. And it hurt…good.

While I’m taking a few days away from my novel to recover from the mental exhaustion of our challenge, I’m trying to keep my mind and fingers limber, as well. And I’m replenishing the springs with other things that I love, feeding the muse with long walks and moments at the piano and poetry.

And ballet.

I read somewhere that writers should be sure to cultivate other interests and challenges in their lives that don’t involve words. I’m so grateful for the chance to rediscover the language of dance again.

Again.

I may lose many things and
Frequently do.
I never lose me.
Does that happen to you?

from Me, Myself and I by Eve Merriam