The Star Dipper

March 20th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After it subsided, I sat in a chastened quiet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Find the Hidden Spring.

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

"Find the Hidden Spring"

Announcing: Poesy, a nosegay of prose

March 17th, 2014

In creating, the only hard thing is to begin; a grass-blade's no easier to make than an oak. ~ James Russel Lowell

Oh my goodness.

I am so excited about what I have to share today that I hardly know where to begin. This news has been over five years in the making. And now that it’s finally time to let it out into the world, I’m tripping over my own enthusiasm.

It all began in the summer of 2008. I’d hit a terrible slump with my writing and would sit at my computer for hours at a time, typing insipid sentences and immediately erasing them. I felt like I had lost my identity as a writer. Worse than that—I felt like I had never been a writer in the first place. Who was I kidding? Who did I think I was? And who on earth would ever want to read the kind of books I wanted to write, anyway?

It went on and on, for weeks. I remember one sweltering afternoon in particular, demoralized by the heat without and the wordlessness within, wherein I threw myself on the sofa in a full pout of despair. “I must’ve missed it,” I half-prayed. “For some reason I thought I was a writer. But I’m not. I don’t have Story running through my veins. Or if I ever did, I’ve lost it.”

I had an appointment that day, so I heaved myself up off of the couch and went downstairs in a black cloud of melancholy. It felt like a death, and my heart was cold with the sorrow of it as I stood before the mirror brushing my hair. Not a writer after all, the words scorched my weary mind. And then, something magical happened. Even as I stared into those despondent eyes before me, a running commentary wakened in my head. It was a voice describing how I was feeling: the awful deadness of my discouragement, the misery of my misunderstanding—in vivid words and in third person.

I threw down my brush and took the stairs two at a time, flinging open my laptop before I’d even pulled out my desk chair. I spilled the description onto the screen, writing as fast as my abysmal typing skills would permit. And as the words grew under my flying fingers, a character emerged. (I was late to that appointment, by the way.) By the end of the next week, I had a story. Another followed, and another. I greeted the process with curiosity, seeing these people suddenly in my head and then following them around over a dozen or so pages just to find out what would happen to them.

The whole thing was so fun it just couldn’t be real writing. Where was the agony, the hair-pulling, the angst? (These jolly friends save their presence for the editing process, as I later learned all too well.) But I couldn’t help myself. I just kept pursuing these little whiffs and signposts of Story—some buoyancy within seemed to carry me along—and, before I knew it, I had the makings of a book. The vision grew with the collection, and when I reached ten stories I knew, instinctively, that I was done.

I wrote this little book purely for joy, out of the most idealistic sensibilities of my heart. There were times I would actually have to get up from my desk and walk off the trembly feelings of happiness that made my hands shake and my heart skip a beat as I wrote. It’s not best-seller material. It’s not “marketable” or “mainstream.” It has no message, save that Love Exists and Beauty Matters, and it has no agenda. If anything, it’s unapologetically old-fashioned, very much in the style of my literary heroine, Lucy Maud Montgomery. It was the book I wanted to write five years ago, and once I got out of the way of myself and quit trying to write what I felt was expected of me, out it came.

I knew that a book as gently outdated as mine would require special treatment, and as my imagination had already quite run away with me, I gave in and gave it its head. It was out of this untrammeled flight of fancy that the dream of Low Door Press emerged: whole runs of books made entirely by hand. I longed to create something that was simply as beautiful as I could make it, start to finish, and, somehow, this book I had secretly (and accidentally) written seemed the perfect candidate. Kilmeny of the Orchard was the first grand experiment (I’m still dazed and delighted at the way she was welcomed by all of you!), and all the while I’ve been working away behind the scenes to bring my own book into the world in accordance with the dreams I first dreamed for her.

Let the beauty we love be what we do; there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground. ~Rumi

All these years I’ve been editing compulsively, revising, rewriting, undoing and redoing. Kind friends have looked her over and given me feedback, and a year ago I hired a keen-eyed and kindred-spirited editor to give my girl a final spit and polish. I finished the typesetting last summer during my online sabbatical and two weeks ago, after one final (agonizing!) export to .pdf, I took my little book to the printers. I was so excited (and a little flustered) that I left the house without any lipstick, and by the time I walked out of the shop with a proof in my hand and an order irrevocably underway, I felt rather dizzy. To be honest, I was totally unprepared for the shining excitement that snatched me up and has held me ever since. My book—my very first book—was being printed! After all the agonizing and obsessing, the scrutinizing of fonts and the millions of exports, after learning to use Illustrator (and learning to use InDesign all over again as I’d forgotten everything I knew)—this dream was becoming a reality!

Now that my book is in my hands and the binding is underway, I wanted to include all of you, dear readers, in the final stages of this project. Besides, I just couldn’t keep the secret to myself any longer! I though it would be fun to keep you posed periodically, in words and images, on the status of this second title in the Low Door Press library. I’m not ready to announce a release date as of yet (there are too many imponderables attendant upon the hand-binding process), but my hope is to have the first run ready by mid-autumn.

And so, without further ado, it is my great pleasure to announce:

Poesy is a collection of love stories, some contemporary, some slightly historical, all with an old-fashioned sensibility. It is a Valentine, of sorts, a personal declaration of sentiment and a bouquet of gentle thoughts.

I am employing a somewhat different method of bookbinding on this particular project: whereas Kilmeny was essentially case bound (the text block created separately and the cases inked and debossed on an antique engraver’s press before assembly), Poesy will be created in the even older style of hollow-backed binding. This will allow for slightly more flexibility in the spine and a chance to try my hand at individually gilt-stamping the titles as the final step in the process. My amazing sister has once again leant her talents to this project and created four stunningly beautiful original illustrations, in addition to the full-color cover art. She has taken the pictures I had in my head when I was writing and made them a reality to grace the pages of my book. I’m absolutely stunned over how lovely they are. Such a perfect complement to the pale green book cloth I’ve decided upon.

So that is my surprise, gentle readers. I would be so honored if you would accompany me on the final stages of this journey. I promise to keep you updated on Poesy’s debut.

Spring Tonic

March 13th, 2014

"It is always safe to dream of spring..." ~L.M. Montgomery

Slipping quietly into this little space on a brisk-but-brilliant almost-spring day to say a warm word of thanks to those of you dear souls (and you know who you are) who have spoken such kind words of late over my long absence from Lanier’s Books. Truthfully, it wasn’t until I received a profoundly gracious email from a longtime reader, gently wondering if I was drifting away from this place and the fellowship of words we have shared here, that I realized just how long it had been since I had posted anything. I was shocked at my own silence, and hastened to assure her–as I am anxious to assure you, dear readers–that, no, I have no intention of abandoning my site or my shop. Quite the contrary, appearances notwithstanding!

In all honesty, I haven’t shared here for the simple reason that I’ve had nothing worth sharing. Not that these winter days have been lacking in beauty, or that life has lost the ruby-hearted lustre that so kindles my soul. Far from it! But it has been a long winter, literally and figuratively, and, in some lights, a hard one. Like our dear friend, Henrietta, I’ve felt rather turned on my head by too much lately, so that most (if not all) that is worthwhile in my mind has toppled out like spare change from an upended wallet. There have been shining joys which I am keen to share with you, but the simple fact is that in all my exhaustion of heart and mind, I haven’t had two words to rub together. I’ve laughingly called it a case of writerly laryngitis, but it’s more than that. I have been writing, in faith that cohesion might someday bubble to the surface. And I have been working happily away in my bookshop, polishing up some details on a surprise that I absolutely cannot wait to unveil.

And in the meantime I’ve been rounding out this quiet hibernation with an unprecedented regimen of self-care. Like Henrietta, I know that unless I tend my dreams–unless I live, as Macrina Wiederkehr put it, in a way that is kind to my own soul–I’ll have nothing to give to the world, no work that is “love made visible.”And that, of course, is the Dream at the heart of my dreams.

I want you to know that I have read and re-read your comments and emails and messages, and they have invigorated me like a good, old-fashioned spring tonic. I never cease to be amazed and humbled by the warmth of the people kind enough to frequent this site. You give me courage, dear readers, and I am overwhelmingly grateful.

And about that surprise…I know I’ve been alluding to it for some time now, to the exhaustion of all suspense and excitement…

But this time I mean it.

Check back on Monday for an announcement of the latest publication from Low Door Press!

God keep you, my friends, and thank you, again.

Under the Mercy,

~L

Lo, How a Rose

December 2nd, 2013

I was mad at God.

It was the 30th of November, a date by which I’ve traditionally completed all of my Christmas shopping, planned my holiday meals, decked half the halls and basically thrown myself heart and soul into the preparations for the season I love best. It’s not that I’m so organized: it’s just that where Christmas is concerned I can scarcely contain my joy. The excitement starts percolating somewhere around about Halloween, and it’s all I can do to hold myself back until after Thanksgiving from draping tinsel over the mirrors and crowning every picture in the house with a branch of holly. I love Christmas so much that I cry when we put the tree up and I cry when we take the tree down—and that never a day before Epiphany. I get so tender over the season, in fact, that the very angle of the light on a late December afternoon is enough to bring tears to my eyes.

But that year I just wasn’t up to it. I was worn out with sorrow, with protracted waiting and exhausted hopes, crushed under a disappointment that felt like a physical blow. Not exactly a recipe for a happy Christmas. And it was all God’s fault.

I told Him so, standing at my window, looking out over a diamond-shot dawn that tangled itself among the velvety arms of my favorite cedar tree and suffused the rising mists with a pale golden light. Christmas, with all its gilted joys and tender associations, would only make things worse.

“I can hardly bear the thought that my Christmas rose has such a thorn.”

I whispered it to the windowpane, and then I immediately thought how silly that was, for the manger itself leads to the Cross and it was a crown of thorns that drew drops of blood as red as holly berries. I knew all that, had sung about it for years, had written little pieces acknowledging the sorrow brooding over that stable in Bethlehem. I had even speculated about the angels’ perspective on the matter, posing that they “may well have bent low in wonder, but could it be that their eyes were dimmed with tears?”

I knew that sorrow was a part of joy, as inextricable as the Cross is from the Resurrection, and that any earthly hurt can make us keen to that loving heartbreak of God. The sorrow had just never been so tangible, so odiously unavoidable. And my thorn had such an ugly name: Barrenness.

It takes a good, stout Old Testament word to express the arid disgrace of it: the Bible is painfully good at looking things in the eye and calling them what they are, and those first faithful ones certainly knew a desert when they saw one. What better depiction of the wasting dearth of disappointed hopes than a weary land hopeless for rain? For a long time I shied away from that word. I held it at arm’s length and buoyed up my spirits with a sanguine hope for ‘next year’. But on that late November morning, options dwindled and hopes all but extinguished, I stared into its lifeless expanse and realized with a horror that seemed to drain all the life out of me that this was the wilderness into which Jesus was asking me to follow Him. It was the last place on earth I wanted to go. I wanted the desert of waiting to give way to a desire fulfilled. I wanted Him to be glorified, yes, but I wanted Him to do it by giving me what I longed for.

The fact was, He had let me down. Early in the newborn days of the previous January He had whispered a word to me, a potent assurance that seared itself on my mind in an unmistakable way. He had comforted my storm-tossed heart with a passage from Isaiah that seemed to echo down through the centuries with a shout of triumphant hope and explode right into the very midst of the quiet room in which I sat reading with burning eyes.

The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them;

ran my trusty old King James,

and the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose.

The words were a cooling shower, steaming and hissing on the dry ground of my desert place of longing, and I sensed the silent movement of God’s voice like a breeze among the brittle grasses:

It’s alright to be sad about that. Now—let Me make something beautiful.

“Way to go, God,” I wanted to say. “You’re really going to be glorified this time.” And what better way to show Himself strong than to make possible that which had proved impossible? To utter a resounding “Yes!” where circumstances had said such an inexorable, “No.” I could hardly wait to see what He was going to do.

And here I was almost a year later, disillusioned and disenchanted, in one of the darkest places I have ever known in my whole life. Nothing had changed—nothing but a heartbreaking flare of medical hope that had ended in ashes and a desire that had grown too heavy to bear. I felt bereft; bereaved and utterly forgotten, with no one to blame but the Author of the universe.

But there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years when it comes to playing the blame game with God: He can take it. “Reviling is also a kind of praise,” says the poet; “pour out your grievances,” says the psalmist. I have to believe that God prefers even insolence to apathy, feigned or otherwise—or worse yet, a pious stoicism. Complaint, at least, is personal; murmuring is abstract, which is why I think God must hate it so: it destroys intimacy. Astonishingly, when I’ve been most angry and honest with Him, His benevolence ends up appearing most poignantly to me. And in the first tender days of that particular Advent season, in the gathering glory of this great Giving and Coming, a bright-winged shadow seemed to gather and fall over me and a breath of wind stirred through the barrens of my wilderness.

There is beauty in this place, He began to tell me again and again, in precious and particular ways, and I clung to that word like a drowning swimmer. If there was beauty here, I had to see it, for without its promise in my life I knew I would perish inwardly, even if it took a lifetime to do it. If there was no beauty here, there was no beauty anywhere—the thought chilled me to the marrow of my soul. But God’s mercy is new every morning, and visits us in a thousand unforeseen ways. The words of a favorite carol bore fresh grace to me the first time I heard it that year:

And so through every time of life, to him who acts with reason,

The beauty of all things doth appear.

All things! Even this wasting patch of earth? Even this bewilderment of pain and desire? Even the hard-crusted face of suffering and surrender? Yes, yes and yes! came the answer on all sides, as if the very rocks and stones of my desert cried out in praise of God’s harmony of things. Almost against my will, I went back and looked at that passage in Isaiah again—and I saw something I had never seen before. Those verses speak not of exchange, but of transformation. The desert in this case is not merely traversed for a season and then gratefully left behind—it is remade. Renamed; plowed and sown and domesticated. This from the hand of the God who “calls things that are not as though they were” and who makes new things out of nothingness.

The wilderness shall blossom as the rose.

“Allright, Lord,” I said. “Have at it.”

And He did. On the first Sunday in that December we attended the Advent Procession at the cathedral downtown. The service is an ancient one, steeped in monastic tradition, wherein the choir travels around the church, singing at all the points of the compass, symbolizing the passage from darkness into light that our Lord’s Advent fulfills. I am such a visual person that it is very meaningful to me, with all the anticipation building to the final glorious Latin hymn sung on the steps leading up to the altar. The most enlightening moment, however, was in the middle of the service, in the midst of a song I had never heard before. From the back of the cathedral came the exultant springing of music and words, buoyant as birdflight:

People, look east! The time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Guest, is on the way.

An overwhelming longing seized me, deeper and more wordless than even my longing for a child, and I sat there in the pew with tears standing in my eyes and my heart nearly pounding out of my chest. A year ago I had imagined myself welcoming the baby we had so long prayed for by this time, but in that moment of blinding, choking joy, there in the holy hush of a cathedral with angels’ voices filling the air, the Lord sang His own longing over me:

Welcome Me! Prepare for Me! Incarnate your love in practical ways—love your loved ones for My sake! Open wide your heart and your home and receive Me more joyfully than ever before!

It was both a gift and a charge; a glad challenge my tired heart suddenly—miraculously—roused to meet. I felt as though strong wings were lifting me from beneath; as though a cup of joy had been held to my lips and a gentle voice commanded me to drink my fill. As though the wilderness itself was breaking into song all around me.

Furrows, be glad! Though earth is bare,
One more seed is planted there:
Give up your strength the seed to nourish,
That in course the flower may flourish.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Rose, is on the way.

That moment threw a quiet mantle of wonder over the rest of the season, tingeing every act with a significance I had never known. A few days before Christmas I was up on a ladder wiring greenery onto a chandelier in anticipation of the loved ones that were soon coming, humming Lo, How a Rose under my breath (anything that had anything to do with roses seemed inherent with meaning that year), when suddenly I stepped down, clippers in hand, under the thrall of a singularly beautiful thought. I went straight to the phone, dialed the wholesale florist I use, and promptly ordered a huge box of blood red roses. When my husband came in with them later I literally danced around the table as he set the box down and lifted off the lid. They were breathtaking: an utter luxuriance of crimson and velvet, couched in a bed of tissue-soft wrappings. But ever so much more than that: they were to me both an image and an offering; an honor to the Author of this glad revel we were keeping in His name. Those roses were my personal statement of faith; my version of perfume, lavished before the coming King.

I nursed them through two harrowingly warmer-than-usual nights and one downright balmy day, but at the end of it I had the joy of spreading out on the porch with my floral supplies and clipping and wiring to my heart’s delight. I made a big wreath of ivy to hang in our bedroom window and trimmed it with snowy white hypericum berries and sprigs of cedar flanking the perfect blooms. I tucked roses among the greenery over pictures and into the big arrangement of holly and pine in my grandmother’s white porcelain compote. I laid them in beds of cedar along the mantle and I worked them into the wreath on the front door. And for the dining room, I fashioned them in rings upon pedestals of oasis and set pineapples—that time-honored symbol of hospitality—down in the center. I can’t remember when I’ve had such fun decorating, or been so pleased with the results. And this in a year when I wasn’t sure I was equal to Christmas at all.

On Christmas Eve our home was bursting at the seams with family and friends-like-family. After the blessing, I read the beloved old greeting penned by Fra Giovanni in 1513 which has become a standard in our home. But never had the words seemed so appropriate:

There is glory and beauty in the darkness, could we but see! And to see, we have only to look.

I could vouch for that a hundred times over—but as I looked around the circle of beloved faces, I knew that every single one of them could testify to it as well. These were no untouched souls—many of them so much older and wiser than me by far—but faithful men and women of God who had taken His hand and wandered through deserts of their own. And every single one of them had come up with Him rejoicing—regardless of the circumstances. They had seen a light in that dark place that the world could not offer or explain away. And they had never been the same.

The rooms rang with laughter and the snapping of fires and sounds of feasting and good fellowship that day. But loveliest of all to me were the sounds of the children, running through the hall, squealing in their games in the backyard. They lined up for the old-fashioned treat of oranges with soft peppermint stick ‘straws’ (now an institution, even among the teenagers) and they pulled English crackers in the den by the tree. One three year-old lass required my help to pull hers and toppled over backward in a cloud white batiste and astonishment when it gave way—I have to say it might just have been the most beautiful sight of the day in a day full of beauty.

I will never forget that Christmas, or the fundamental shift that happened down inside of me. How it literally changed everything and how the wilderness flowered before my incredulous eyes. My desire had not abated a whit; if anything, it was heartier and haler than ever. But the wild anger had gone, and in its place there bloomed a fresh-flowered hope that all would be well: not because life is perfect or every desire has been accomplished, but because He is. Because He came among us, and He’s still here when Christmas is over. Thou meetest him that rejoiceth, and worketh righteousness: In the years since that has been the standard I have borne in all my preparations for Christmas; a torch flaming in the darkness and a voice in the wilderness. And He does meet us, in our most broken places, year after year, with the marvel of His advent. And He does work wonders—miracles of quiet righteousness—even if they are so hidden in the depths of our hearts only He can see them. But wonders, no less.

Wondrous as a heart breaking with longing and joy at the same time; inexplicable as a barren place blossoming with roses.

Ah—with God, nothing shall be impossible.

originally published on the Art House America blog, November 2012.

Thanksgiving Eve

November 27th, 2013

Wednesdays are my favorite days, and this is my favorite Wednesday of the year.

I absolutely love the anticipation that this day means. Since early this morning I’ve been chopping herbs and pecans, grating orange rind (that lovely little burst of spray that escapes every time the zester perforates the orange is like a tiny sacrament of the season to me), measuring out brown sugar and vanilla and poring over endearingly splattered recipes. I’ve tended the fire on the kitchen hearth and I’ve leaned over a stock pot simmering with the well-beloved cranberry conserve I’ve made every year since I was seventeen. Snow flurries (Snow! In November!) whirl in keen gusts outside the window, making that fire all the more friendly, and, like an epiphany, sudden sunlight ebbs and flows over my world in a wave of pale gold at a break in the clouds. I hear the wild and far off exultation of the sandhill cranes voyaging south, but this day I’ve no inclination to dream of the sunny lands they sing of. Sweeter to my soul is the bleating of my own sheep in the barnyard and the light snoring of this cat who takes my fireside chair every time I pop up to stir a pot or respond to a timer. My heart is homing with such a quiet joy today, a gathering-up of myself and all I believe about beauty and truth and goodness: namely, that all of this work and preparation and expectation is a banner of hope and a statement of faith. As I said elsewhere, things matter, everything matters, because Love has come and Redemption tarries not.


It will be a different Thanksgiving this year. We will gather with our family to celebrate on Sunday, and tomorrow we’ll enjoy a quiet day at home, just us. I am preparing a formal dinner for Philip and it has been the delight of my heart to dream over it and shop for it and make what preparations I can in advance. I keep teasing him that it’s my version of Babette’s Feast (one of the best, most sacrificially beautiful films I have ever seen), but I have had fun. Don’t tell Philip, but I’m making, among other things, an honest-to-goodness Beef Wellington, a butternut squash “crumble” that has been driving me mad with gorgeous aromas, and for dessert, a lovely (and heretofore untested) sabayon made with roasted chestnuts and Muscat.

I’m embracing “different” this year. My heart has heard God’s whisper to open my hands and to accept my limitations, which are two sides of the same coin, and I am earnestly endeavoring to heed that pluck at my sleeve. For the truth is, while I would not change places with anyone on the face of this earth, there are a few things in my life I would change right now, if I could. God, in such greater tenderness and wisdom, sees otherwise, and I bow before that unfathomable Love. But the heart that is alive bears its wounds, as I am sure every single one of you could attest in personal and poignant ways. And if there is one thing I have learned, it’s that sorrow and joy don’t usually visit us separately, but hand in hand. “I’ll take the heights and the depths,” I told a dear friend and mentor on the phone this morning, “because that is where the joy is.” I don’t have to understand how the mystical transaction takes place–I can only swear that it does.

And when Sorrow has stayed its piece, Joy remains. That, in my opinion, is something to celebrate.

I want you to know that as I sit by my fire on this Thanksgiving Eve and cusp of the Bright Season, I’m raising a teacup to all of you kind souls out there who connect with my words and give them a place in your hearts. I am truly and deeply grateful for you.

May the blessing of light be on you—
light without and light within.
May the blessed sunlight shine on you
and warm your heart
till it glows like a great peat fire.

Celtic Blessing

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!"