During Advent twelve years ago, I was newly pregnant and very afraid.
I should have remembered the angel’s proclamation to Mary, “Do not be afraid.” Instead, because I had waited so long and with so much agony for this second child to be conceived, the news of a growing baby felt too good to be true. I became convinced that my child would be born with serious health problems.
My prayers had been answered, but I dimly sensed there must be some price to pay.
I had suffered just enough to stop believing in good news and gifts freely offered.
The good news of this season is God’s nearness. A son has been born to us, and his name is God-with-us.
The good news is that the God who came near has promised to return. Advent is that season when we pinch ourselves awake, we rub the sleep from our eyes, and we remember to watch and wait.
“A light shines in the darkness,” and despite everything–everything— we’ve seen, we believe the “darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
My son Thaddeus was born at bright noon on my very own birthday. He was healthy and strong, and I held in my arms the answer God had been whispering to me for months: This son is a good gift. No strings attached.
That was the good news, and it was absolutely true. Yet my grip on it slipped as Thaddeus grew.
He had his first serious allergic reaction at six months old. It was Christmas Eve.
We used the epi-pen and drove him to the hospital for the first time when he was two.
We did the same when he was three.
When he was four, I took him out for a treat and forgot to bring his epi-pen. A stranger with an epi-pen in her purse saved my son’s life.
I remember once standing with an exhausted doctor in a hospital corridor. We were both watching Thaddeus, lying so swollen and so still in that enormous hospital bed, and I asked, “Will he grow out of it?”
The doctor sighed, his eyes never leaving my little boy. I waited.
“Normally, I would say yes. But I’ve never seen a reaction like his. How could a little processed-cheese dust cause this?”
Through a decade of constant vigilance and fear that was still, too often, not good enough, I prayed for my son.
Heal him. Please.
But every single time I prayed, the same few words would drop—like a stone—in my heart:
He is already healed.
I never knew what to do with that stone. Some days I believed the good news: already healed. But the good news couldn’t fully erase the fear that we would make another mistake, miss something, forget something.
And the good news seemed to offer little to a boy who ate his lunch alone at the “peanut-free table” and cried after every class party: I just want to eat what all the other kids eat.
I can’t remember when we first decided to let him try dairy. Two years ago? A year? I know he asked for a long, long while before we said yes. I can’t even remember what we fed him. Was it a muffin baked with a little bit of butter? Or was it a waffle made with a small amount of buttermilk?
I’ve forgotten how it began, but I remember the culmination: cheesy homemade pizza on a Friday night. We let him try one bite. We kept his epi-pen on the counter. We made him wait twenty minutes before another bite, and we peppered him with questions:
How do you feel? Is there any scratchiness in your throat? What about now? Does your mouth itch? What about now?
He ate one whole piece of pizza that night, but we still took it slow. The light of that good news announced for years to every one of my prayers was dawning, but Jonathan and I covered our eyes.
We were afraid, I think, to look directly at the thing we had always desired.
This year, our son has eaten cookies and cakes baked with butter. He has eaten cookies and cakes baked with milk. Twice, he ate a cupcake frosted with butter frosting. Once, he sprinkled parmesan cheese on his soup, and I didn’t stop him.
On Thanksgiving Day, we realized too late we’d forgotten to buy almond milk. We made the mashed potatoes, Thaddeus’s favorite food, with real milk, real cream, and real butter.
That night, having had no reaction to the potatoes, Thaddeus ate his first slice of apple pie with real whipped cream.
“I like it,” he said, in a quiet voice.
A week or so ago, I realized we were out of the almond milk Thaddeus has always used on his Cheerios and his oatmeal. Jonathan would be heading to the grocery store that day, but as I wrote up a list for him, I couldn’t decide whether to add almond milk.
The only thing we had not yet tried giving Thaddeus was pure milk. I knew in my mind he could have it. He ate whipped cream! I knew he had outgrown his milk allergy, but over all these years, I have grown accustomed to doubt and fear.
The last time Thaddeus took a sip of milk, he was three, and it was a glass meant for his sister, and the whole nightmare ended with a bloody mark on his pants from the epi-pen and a trip to the hospital.
My pen hesitated until, finally, I wrote: almond milk (do we need to buy more?).
Maybe Advent is the long, slow leaning in toward the good news we do believe. Maybe Advent is a gradual waking up.
The good news we have waited for has been announced in our lives. I have seen the evidence with my own eyes. My much-loved boy is no longer allergic to milk, and this year, for the first time, he and I will share a birthday cake made with real milk and real butter.
But when I think about pouring him a glass of milk, my hand starts shaking with old memories and old fears, and I can’t do it.
I haven’t yet done it.
When Jonathan brought the groceries home, I saw the familiar box of almond milk amidst the bananas and the avocados.
“You bought more almond milk,” I said to him.
It was a statement.
It was a question.
Jonathan looked at me. He didn’t say anything until he finally looked away.
“It feels good just to have it in the house,” I said, and he nodded.
We are waiting for Christmas. We are waiting for Christ’s return.
But maybe we’re also waiting on ourselves. Gently and with patience.
Because the good news is a bright light, and our eyes are weak. Our hearts still a little fearful. And maybe we need to hear, just one more time, what Mary heard not so long ago:
The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid.
It’s like the difference between the blue of a puddle and the blue of the ocean, this difference between the autumn of memory and autumn itself.
All year long, I say with ease, “Autumn is my favorite season.” I say it for the color of the leaves and the apple-crispness of the air. I say it for planting bulbs and going for long drives on country roads in search of our favorite old sugar maple trees. I say it for back to school and the holidays nearing, but every year I forget that vast expanse between the idea of autumn and the encounter with it.
To borrow words from W. B. Yeats, I forget that every year, on or about the end of September, a terrible beauty is born.
I begin to remember when the yellow leaves of the walnut tree rattle down on the metal roof of the old red barn, and my delight is mingled with dread. The dread is bewildering. Isn’t this my favorite season?
Why do I feel both glad and afraid?
I live in the pastoral paradise of southeastern Pennsylvania. Bridges are still covered and sized for horse-drawn buggies. Fieldstone walls meander in rhythm with the song of brooks and streams. Old stone farmhouses with leaded windows sit snug against hillsides, protected from winter winds for hundreds of years.
The beauty of this place is sweet and easy. It is a beauty resonant of home and safety, shelter and cultivation – at least, until the trees wake up and begin to blaze.
We say we want pumpkins on the porch and a gold shimmer on the trees, but we forget that this beauty won’t only warm us, it will burn us, as encounters with the deepest, truest things always do.
Every year, autumn beauty – that unbearable fire and glory – breaks my heart a little more completely.
Another Irish writer, Edmund Burke, gave us his treatise On the Sublime and Beautiful in 1756, just when colonists in these parts were busy building the “brave brick houses” spoken of by William Penn. According to Burke, beauty originated in love while the sublime had its roots in fear. It is the difference between a green pasture dotted with sheep and a snow-covered peak, terrible and tall.
It is the difference between my home in late summer and my home in fall.
I think I am afraid because in no other season does time seem so swift and so cruel.
No sooner have I spied the first color in the treetops and shuffled the first golden feathers beneath my feet, than the limbs are bare. The landscape bleak. As Robert Frost once wrote, “… leaf subsides to leaf. / So Eden sank to grief, / So dawn goes down to day. / Nothing gold can stay.”
Spring’s color may be just as lovely, but it goes easy on our hearts, tapering out slowly into summer greenness until one hot day we realize that the circle of the year has shifted, and we are somewhere new.
Autumn is simply one season of four, but it isn’t a safe season. Autumn reminds me of Aslan of Narnia, “He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”
We can avert our eyes, shield our hearts, and try to keep this beauty from breaking our hearts, but winter will come whether we do that or not.
Floodwaters will rise.
Hurricane winds will blow.
The earth will tremble, and we will suffer. If anything is certain in life it is that we will suffer. The only question is whether we will suffer well?
There will be terror and there will be beauty, and some days, the line between the two will blur completely, and all our certainties seem up for grabs.
It helps, I think, to enter the barren season with eyes still full of glory.
The poet T. S. Eliot famously wrote of “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”
What will I shore up against the coming ruin of winter?
So many fall delights.
The beauty of this coming season may be terrible, but fortified by small beauties, perhaps we can bear it with more ease. Delights like apple crisp flavored with chai spices, a melancholy old novel, a bouquet of dahlias on the table, and, yes, a pumpkin on the porch.
Just in time for this new season: an Autumn Giveaway!
When I first imagined the book that eventually became Roots and Sky, I pictured an old-fashioned treasure, something like the books I seek out in thrift stores and used bookstores. I thought my stories would be interspersed with seasonal tips and recipes and nostalgic pen-and-ink illustrations.
Almost as soon as I began writing, I realized that the story I needed to tell was simpler and leaner. Those first four seasons at Maplehurst were more quiet and watchful than busy and industrious, and the book needed to reflect that.
But the idea of offering more – seasonal stories, tips, recipes, and beautiful illustrations – has never gone away.
This summer we celebrated five years of cultivating home in this Victorian red brick farmhouse.
I can’t think of a better way to mark that anniversary than by finally giving you the more I imagined so long ago. In fact, I plan to give you more (and more, and more, and more). I have four gifts planned, each one arriving with a new season.
In collaboration with the talented designer and illustrator Jennifer Tucker of Little House Studio, I’ve created four autumn-themed pages from that book of my dreams.
They are free for every one of my email subscribers to download and print.
One comes from my kitchen, two from the garden, and one from my bookshelves. Each page offers something practical and beautiful wrapped up in my own lyrical point of view.
I’m planning to print and frame mine, but they’ll do just as well tacked to a bulletin board or tucked into a garden journal or recipe box. Feel free to share this post with friends who might like to print their own.
Simply click the subscribe box below, enter your email address, and a confirmation email will be sent straight to you. Confirm your address, and you’ll be taken to the link in order to claim your download.
If you are already a subscriber, check your inbox. Your link should be waiting for you.
Here are two things to remember:
One: Autumn is fleeting, and so is this gift. TWO WEEKS from today, the offer expires, and the prints will no longer be available.
Two: Winter follows fast on autumn’s heels, and my winter pages should appear some time in December.
September at Maplehurst is for birthdays and books.
And birthday apple pie.
Both of my daughters were born in September. This year, only four days apart, my big girl turns fourteen and my little girl turns five.
September at Maplehurst is also for full hearts and grateful tears.
My favorite gifts to give are books, and this month I have a stack of new favorites to give family and friends.
Shawn Smucker’s beautiful new novel The Day the Angels Fell would be perfect for the fourteen-year-old in your life. It would also make a great family read aloud with younger kids, and, honestly? I’m also telling the adult readers I know all about this winsome fantasy. If you’re a fan of Madeleine L’Engle, Neil Gaiman, or even Wendell Berry, then you’ll appreciate this beautifully written, spiritually rich story. This is a gorgeous, gift-worthy hardback edition, too.
You might worry that your child is too young or too sensitive for a book about death, but I can think of few better ways to introduce the topic than through the work of a gifted storyteller like Shawn. Local friends, I’ll be hosting a reading and book signing by Shawn at my home some time in October. Please do reach out to me for more details!
My friend Sara Hagerty has just released Unseen: The Gift of Being Hidden in a World That Loves To Be Noticed. This is also a beautiful, hardback edition with a cover design I love, but, of course, the real treasure is inside.
Sara’s quietly powerful story will transform how you think about success. I am personally grateful to her for giving me a fresh, new perspective on what it might mean to change the world.
GraceLaced: Discovering Timeless Truths Through Seasons of the Heart, by my talented friend Ruth Chou Simons, may be the ideal book for gift-giving. Ruth is a devotional writer and visual artist, and her book is the most exquisite thing on any of my over-stuffed bookshelves. Featuring her own watercolor floral art, luminous photography, and special touches like pretty endpapers and a cover begging you to touch it, this is a book lover’s book.
The seasonal meditations are written in a classic, not at all sentimental devotional style and include beautiful spaces for personal responses and notes. I’m convinced we all know someone who would love to receive this book for an autumn birthday or Christmas gift, or, goodness, maybe just because?
One of my favorite mystery writers, Louise Penny, has just released Glass Houses, the 13th installment in her Chief Inspector Gamache series, set in the quaint Quebec village of Three Pines. You could read Glass Houses on its own, but I highly recommend beginning with the first. The story builds from book to book, and you’ll appreciate the slow unfolding of these characters’ lives.
Louise Penny isn’t the most literary or polished of the mystery writers I appreciate, and yet there is something about her cozy village and philosophical Inspector that has earned this series a very special place on my bookshelf. Penny’s authorial presence can be a little heavy-handed. In writing-workshop speak she is more likely to tell than to show, but that style suits her material. I, for one, want to hear everything Penny has to say. In the character of kindly Armand Gamache and the evocative Quebec setting (not to mention the delicious details of food and drink!), Penny offers serious but cozy reflections on the human heart, relationships, and the nature of evil. There aren’t many mysteries with the heart and soul of these.
If you are a book lover then you probably already know Anne Bogel’s fabulous podcast What Should I Read Next. If not, well, you’re welcome. Anne’s first book (with its own beautiful cover) releases very soon. Reading People: How Seeing the World through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything is the book many of us have been waiting for.
In it, Anne uses personal storytelling to distill the wisdom of various personality tests and templates. If you’ve ever wanted to understand yourself and others better but found the big books on the Enneagram or Myers-Briggs or the Five Love Languages to be too technical or time-consuming, then Anne’s book is for you. Or if, like me, you already love the discoveries these personality frameworks make available, you’ll appreciate this fresh, enjoyable, and personal perspective.
That’s all for now. I’m off to make a little girl’s birthday cake.
But first, which new books do you have your eye on? I’d love to hear.
P.S. I’m giving away a calendar of my flower photography on instagram this week.