Homebound: From Mersea to Maplehurst, With Love (March 6)

Homebound: From Mersea to Maplehurst, With Love (March 6)

Elizabeth and I are homebound. She, a writer of poetry and prose, is bound to Mersea, a 1904 white Victorian nestled in the historic district of a South Carolina shrimping village. I am bound to Maplehurst, a red-brick farmhouse built by Pennsylvania Quakers in 1880. We are both writers, wives, and mothers, but nearly twenty years and hundreds of miles lie between us. This season, as winter turns toward spring and Lent leans toward Easter, Elizabeth and I are writing letters, she beneath the pines and pecans, I beneath the hemlocks and maples. We will reflect together on our homebound journeys. We will explore the bonds of love and faithfulness that tie us, and not always easily, to these particular places and to the people sheltered within them. Please join us for an epistolary exploration of love, loss, and restoration.

Read Elizabeth’s letter of March 3 here. My response is below.

March 6, 2017

In my third-floor office, tucked up in an armchair near the window

 

Dear Elizabeth,

You write of pansies and roses and blooming cherry trees, and I imagine a scented floral carpet working its way across our country, south to north. I know a new season is on its way, but it is difficult to believe in spring while this bitter wind whips across my attic window. The temperature here at Maplehurst is predicted to fall to thirteen tonight. I am afraid that the swollen buds on my peach and apricot trees will not survive to bloom. Seasons do collide, as you say, and there are casualties. I am grieving the fruit we likely will not pick this July.

To invest in a garden is to have your heart broken on a regular basis. The more you pour in, the more you receive, but the more you also have to lose. In the past year or two, I have focused my gardening efforts on “extending the season of interest,” as it says in one of my gardening books. This means planting the earliest blooming snowdrops and daffodils and the latest flowering dahlias and windflowers. This week has shown me that in addition to the great joy of more flowers I now also have an extended season for potential heartbreak. My early “February Gold” daffodils were a lovely winter surprise, but now they look, from my window, like a child’s toys left out to be ruined in the weather. I should have gathered them all up, but I couldn’t bear to erase every last bit of golden yellow from beneath the hawthorn trees.

I had forgotten how slow the shift from winter to spring can be (two steps forward, one step back). Home restoration is the same. I sometimes think that every project we complete merely highlights the decay that remains in new ways. If I paint a wall, the ceiling suddenly looks dingy. If I paint one radiator, the peeling paint on the others stands out more than ever. I recently painted the trim down our back stairs, but now the cracks in the plaster wall are all I can see (two steps forward, one step back). If I struggle to know where to begin, I also struggle to decide when, and where, to stop.

You write that the slow process of transformation shapes you, that it is formative. I agree, and yet I resent the slowness. If I could, I would snap my fingers – ta da! – and Maplehurst would be fixed, repaired, spruced up. This place, and everyone in it, would be healed. Made whole. But if I lost the process, what else would I lose? I know I would lose a great deal, though I am loathe to admit it.

Lent is indeed a sacred time. It is a season for active waiting. It is the season when I try to turn, deliberately, toward the source, like a daffodil turning its face toward the sun.

I set this letter aside when it came time to make dinner. Now a night and a day have passed. The cold did come. The daffodils no longer look like toys, but like debris that has been trampled underfoot. They are utterly wilted.

The bitter cold arrived with the first Sunday of Lent. In the morning, I read the Sunday paper and shook my head. I could not finish a single story because every one was breaking my heart. At church, we began our service, as we do every year during Lent, with a recitation of the ten commandments and a prayer of confession.

Now I recall what it is I hear when you say the name of your home Mersea.

Mercy. I hear mercy.

It is both prayer (Lord, have mercy) and statement (Lord, you are merciful indeed).

with love,

Christie

Maplehurst

 

Homebound: From Mersea to Maplehurst, With Love (March 1)

Homebound: From Mersea to Maplehurst, With Love (March 1)

Elizabeth and I are homebound. She, a writer of poetry and prose, is bound to Mersea, a 1904 white Victorian nestled in the historic district of a South Carolina shrimping village. I am bound to Maplehurst, a red-brick farmhouse built by Pennsylvania Quakers in 1880. We are both writers, wives, and mothers, but nearly twenty years and hundreds of miles lie between us. This season, as winter turns toward spring and Lent leans toward Easter, Elizabeth and I are writing letters, she beneath the pines and pecans, I beneath the hemlocks and maples. We will reflect together on our homebound journeys. We will explore the bonds of love and faithfulness that tie us, and not always easily, to these particular places and to the people sheltered within them. Please join us for an epistolary exploration of love, loss, and restoration.

Find Elizabeth’s first letter here. My response is below.

 

March 1, 2017

From the kitchen table at Maplehurst, where a peacock blue, block-printed tablecloth is scattered with the crumbs of last night’s pancake supper

My friend,

As I write, Dr. B is smoothing down our old oak floors with an electric sander. It sounds as if an airplane has flown in through an open window by mistake, a mechanical bird looking for escape. Once the old finish is removed, he will soak the wood in a mixture of tung and orange oils. The dull, dry floorboards will absorb their own luster until they can absorb no more. Then the floors will shine for the first time in many decades, and my children will no longer gather splinters with their bare toes. He says the finish will take a month or so to cure. While we wait, the rugs will lie rolled up in the basement, and the house will smell like a grove of Florida citrus.

Dr. B is our doctor of old houses, and he does indeed have the healer’s gift. He came to us a year ago when Jonathan and I found that we had fallen into a silence more sinister than the usual quiet lull between house projects. This was the silence of rotted wood beyond our ability to repair and crumbling limestone mortar whose nineteenth-century recipe was a puzzle we could not hope to solve.

The first time I met him he showed me photographs of his intricate, swirling plaster work. I admired them like I admire sculpture in a museum. It did not matter that our plain, Quaker-built farmhouse has no decorative plasterwork. The second time I met him he told me he’d been praying for one more old house to restore. Maplehurst was the answer to his prayer, but he is the answer to ours.

Here in Pennsylvania, a mild winter appears to be coming to an early end. I have seen the very first of the bright yellow daffodils called “February Gold.” Despite their name, they have never bloomed for me in February, until this year.

Soon, then, he and I will turn our attention outdoors. He to the red bricks in need of fresh mortar on the west side of the house, and me to the garden. Before I plant out sweet peas and dig in bareroot roses, however, I need to finish wallpapering and painting “Julie’s room.” For two years, our friend Julie lived in this room, but last month she moved out to a place of her own. I have chosen a pale, not-too-pink shade of pink for the sloped attic ceiling and walls, and a bold pink-and-blue floral wallpaper for the window wall at the far end of the room. Quite likely, we will call this bedroom “Julie’s room” forever, but I intend it to be a bedroom my two nieces can call their own each time they visit.

Perhaps I plant baby trees so enthusiastically because I, like you, live in fear that one of our ancient pines will one day topple down, taking our front porch with it. Restoration that peels back the ravages of time like layers of old paint is such a hopeful thing. But the restoration required of us in the wake of disaster, even a disaster as small as a broken pane of glass or the deep scratch my boys left on the banister, is a more daunting cross to carry. In my weariness, I opt for bandages that hide but do not heal. Months ago, I taped a square of cardboard across the missing pane of glass in the door to my potting shed. Now I can see that cardboard flapping in the breeze.

Restoration is beautiful to contemplate, wonderful when finished, but often difficult to live. In this season at Maplehurst, restoration is the bone-rattling sound of renewed floors. It is the rosy-pink glow of a bedroom decorated for young girls. It is also the note on my calendar reminding me that my husband will soon travel to escort our nieces to their Daddy-Daughter Dance.

To commit oneself to restoration, we must be willing to draw near to brokenness. Broken floors. Broken hearts.

Today is Ash Wednesday. Tonight, I will make the drive to church with my children. I will allow four soft, small foreheads to be smudged with a mark of sin and death. We are turning toward spring, toward resurrection, yet I worry: is restoration second-best? Is it always not-quite-as-good-as new?  When I study these many broken things, I know I want better-than-new.

The broken walls, of which Scripture speaks so often, are only partially rebuilt. The ruins have only begun to be repaired.

But the work has begun, and this gives me hope.

With gratitude for your listening ear,

Christie

at Maplehurst

*

You can find Elizabeth Marshall’s letters and more of her beautiful words here.

These Farmhouse Bookshelves (In a Time of Violence)

These Farmhouse Bookshelves (In a Time of Violence)

(an installment in my occasional series of book recommendations; this post contains affiliate links)

Garden Harvest: Still Life

These are violent days. What good are books? Of what use is poetry?

In his elegy for W. B. Yeats, the poet W. H. Auden famously wrote, “poetry makes nothing happen.” Yet the poem itself complicates this view.

Poetry may or may not change a thing, but if we feel compelled to sing, why not sing, as Mary once sang, of justice?

If we feel compelled to read, why not shed the burden of our own particular skin and view the world through another’s eyes? For a little while?

Here is a poem for that.

Here is one more.

*

A favorite book on our family shelves is Brown Girl Dreaming, a recent Newbery Honor Book by Jacqueline Woodson. My twelve-year-old daughter and I both loved it. The poetry is accessible but incredibly rich.

In a similar vein, I recommend Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai. Written in verse, this story communicates difficult truths and complicated historical experiences with grace and lyricism. It is one of the sweetest, saddest, loveliest books I have read.

When I was a new graduate student living on the south side of Chicago, I first read the classic 1952 novel Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. That was years ago, and I don’t remember the book very well. What I do remember is the shock I felt reading a novel told from the perspective of a nameless black man. For the first time in my life I recognized how the skin we walk around in can remake the world around us. I had never even imagined a world like the one inhabited by this invisible man, but there it was, and while I read the book, I lived in it.

*

Like most summers, this one is too loud, too crowded, too hot. But, as I write in Roots and Sky, this cuts two ways. There are also too many lilies in the garden and too many squash on the vine. My way of dealing with the too-muchness of it all is what I call “comfort-reading.” This means I am finding most of my reading material on the shelf at my local Goodwill thrift store: fifty cent Agatha Christie paperbacks, an old Martha Stewart gardening book without its carefully photographed jacket, an Englishman’s memoir of life in Provence that must have been on everyone’s beach-read list the summer of ’89.

I revisited the Goodwill bookshelves only yesterday and found two treasures. The first was a copy of The Taize Picture Bible: Stories From the Scriptures in almost perfect, vintage condition. I have heard such good things about this illustrated Bible for children over the years, but it has long been out of print. I paid $1.97 and couldn’t believe my luck.

The second was a pristine paperback copy of Elizabeth Enright’s Thimble Summer, the winner of the 1939 Newbery Medal. I didn’t buy it only because I recently found a vintage hardback of the same title at my local used bookstore. It has been our evening family read-aloud for a week now.

My ongoing quest to discover read-aloud books all four of my kids will submit to listening to (actually enjoying the book is a higher standard; I am satisfied if two of four children say they “like” the book) has recently met with failure upon failure. The last success I remember is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy, a book that has a lot in common with Thimble Summer.

*

On the recommendation of a friend, I recently began reading The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island. After my friend explained it was a book about an old house written by a landscape historian, she said, “I think you’ll like it.” I said, “I think you’re right.”

More factual and straightforward than a historical novel, yet much more readable and compelling than a history textbook, The Manor tells the story of one of the first great European houses in North America, and the family who lived in it and preserved its history for centuries. One house might not seem so important, but the door of this house opens up a story of northern slavery that has since been either forgotten or willfully ignored.

The first Sylvesters were Quakers, and the story of their lives is revising a story I have always taken pride in. My own farmhouse was built by Quakers, and I have long given credit for the beauty of this part of Pennsylvania to the generations of residents who have sown peace and justice into the very soil of this place. That story is still true, but The Manor tells an older, darker tale. According to this story, the blood of enslaved Africans touches every aspect of our earliest history and every one of my seemingly peaceful, green hills.

*

Seeds of brutality and injustice were sown into our country’s soil from its earliest days. It is a small thing to know that the atrocities of slavery on sugar plantations in Barbados could not have been sustained without the animals and crops raised on New England farms, yet somehow that knowledge has brought the shame of slavery home to my own heart.

Those Barbadian plantation owners lived in homes built like fortresses. They exploited, in fact, they brutalized their workers and so they feared them.

Slavery is long gone, but we still reap that terrible harvest. We worship safety. We are afraid of black men, but it is the black men, and their communities, who pay the price for our fear.

When I hear that one more police officer has killed one more black man, I cannot throw a stone at that officer. I remember how, years ago, fear would rise up in me if I followed the sidewalk beneath a graffiti-splattered viaduct and saw a young black man in baggy pants approaching from the other direction. It took years of living in that south-side Chicago neighborhood to learn that I was always so much safer than any of those young black men. In ten years, I was never the victim of a crime, but neighbor after neighbor, innocent after innocent, male and female but always black-skinned, died of gun violence while I lived, untouched, in their midst.

Separation breeds fear, and fear breeds violence.

But if violence is a failure of the imagination, as the poet William Stafford said, then perhaps poetry can make something happen?

Comfort-reading has its place, but I must also read to bring dark things into the light. Especially, those dark things in my own self.

What if we tuned our imaginations to the songs of others not like ourselves?

If poetry makes beauty and creates hope, can it also help us to act justly and love mercy?

Can it help us walk humbly with our God?

*

With these questions in mind, do you have any book recommendations for me?

If you are looking for a quick Saturday read, here is my latest post for Grace Table: “What Hospitality Looks Like In A Castle.”

Life Right Now

Life Right Now

Maplehurst Magnolia

 

Life right now is all about watching the giant magnolia tree over our chicken run slowly unfold its blossoms.

Life right now is also a forecast of cold and (though I refuse to accept it) snow that might put an end to these pink petals over the weekend. In other words, life right now is beautiful and hard.

Life right now is discovering that a few of the rafters in our roof were resting on air, the original chestnut beam having rotted away long ago. But life right now is also our new friend, Dr. B. (“Doctor of Old Houses”), who promptly left his scaffolding, drove over to his own old house, and picked up a replacement chestnut beam he had handy.

Right now, I am reading books by the bow-window in my bedroom and watering seedlings that sit beneath grow lights in the basement.

I am loving Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr. While at work on the novel that would become the Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See (yes, he’s that Anthony Doerr), Doerr was the recipient of an award to live and write for a year in Rome. He found out about the award the day his twin sons were born.

Writers begin as observers, and Doerr models this beautifully. This is a memoir of Rome, of parenthood (and insomnia), and the writer’s craft. It is also a book that gives me hope. As readers, we know that during the period Doerr writes about he is engaged in a creative effort that will succeed beyond anything he can imagine. And yet, Doerr struggles with insecurity, doubt, writer’s block, culture shock, and the exhaustion of parenting infant twins.

For all of us, life can feel impossibly difficult, but this book reminds me that no matter how each individual day feels, our days are adding up to something beautiful and meaningful.

I also recently finished Addie Zierman’s new memoir Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark. On the surface, this is a memoir about one mom’s rather desperate road trip escape from Minnesota’s winter toward the beckoning sunshine of Florida’s beaches.

Zierman brings her two young sons along for what turns out to be more of a search for the light of God’s presence than southern sunshine. The faith of her young adulthood was fiery and intense, but that kind of faith flickered and dimmed long ago. Zierman hits the road in search of a God who often seems hidden and silent. Whether or not you relate to Zierman’s phase of life or the trajectory of her spiritual journey, I recommend this book. Zierman is a gifted writer, and this memoir is incredibly well crafted. Once I picked it up, I couldn’t put it down.

***

I recently shared my writing in a few new places around the web.

First, I wrote On Tears (And Other Blessings) for my friend and fellow writer, Sara Hagerty. I have given Sara’s first book Every Bitter Thing Is Sweet to more than a few friends (and sisters).

Second, I shared some family stories in a piece on love and grief for my friend, Mary Bonner. The day I sent this reflection via email turned out to be the day Mary’s mother’s health suddenly declined. She didn’t read my words until she’d returned from her mother’s funeral almost two weeks later. By then, the words I wrote were for her, but perhaps they are for you, as well.

The first Roots and Sky online book club continues! Laura Brown is leading a thoughtful discussion, and you can even find recordings (two so far) of me reading chapters from the book. Here are week one (thresholds), week two (testimony), and week three (winter).

“Without habit, the beauty of the world would overwhelm us. We’d pass out every time we saw – actually saw – a flower. Imagine if we only got to see a cumulonimbus cloud or Cassiopeia or a snowfall once a century: there’d be pandemonium in the streets.” – Anthony Doerr, Four Seasons in Rome

The Things We Make

The Things We Make

My Daughter Paints

My youngest child is three years old, and every day she paints.

She paints lions and footprints. She paints me, and she paints rivers, roads, and bugs. For a while, she painted without giving much attention to the finished product. She would paint until holes appeared in the paper and then move on to the next. I would make a great show of laying the art out to dry, but she hardly noticed. Her focus was always already on the next creation.

Recently, that has changed. When I gather up her morning’s work, she cries out, “Don’t throw them away! I want to keep them!” Sometimes, she hunts for a magnet and tries to hang them on the refrigerator herself.

She recognizes these lions and bugs as the work of her hands, and she no longer lets them go so easily.

*

We all make things. I write stories, and my daughter paints bugs. My husband builds window seats and picket fences out of wood, and my son makes castles with lego bricks.

Making some things feels like wearing our heart on our sleeve or serving it up on a platter. This is true of memoirs. Sometimes this feels true even of our first attempt at sourdough bread when there are new guests at our table.

We are not all artists or writers, but most of us, perhaps all of us, create. We long to know that what we have made is good. Not perfect or ground-breaking, necessarily, but good.

Perhaps it shouldn’t matter what others think of our creations. Sometimes, we succeed in being philosophical. Some people just do not like the taste of sourdough bread, after all. But I do think there is a desire in each of us to hear the words well done.

Hearing those words is far less important than simply doing the work. It may even be that the creating matters more than even the thing we make. Which means that those words, well done, are something special.

They are a gift we give one another.

*

Here are five gifts given to me.

I hope they make you just that much more eager to read the work of my hands when it releases February 2. I hope, too, that you will seek out these creators. Each one has written a book (or more than one!) that means something special to me.

Each one should be confident that what they have done is very well done, indeed.

“When it comes to finding God in ordinary places, no one does it better than Christie Purifoy.

Her words in Roots and Sky met me when I was unable to connect with any other books.

Somehow her personal journey to find home turned into a spiritually informative pilgrimage for

my own soul. This book is hope for the weary and wandering, and Christie Purifoy’s smart,

grounding voice is a new favorite.”

—Emily P. Freeman, author of Simply Tuesday

 

“I have been terrified of hope. Because if hope disappoints, does that mean God is also a

disappointment? Christie reminds us that hope, like dreams, is made of stronger stuff. She invites

us into a year of her life lived in real time in an old Pennsylvania farmhouse, chock-full of hope

and decay, promise and weeds, work and wonder.”

—Lisa-Jo Baker, author of Surprised by Motherhood and community manager for

(in)courage

 

“In Roots and Sky, Christie Purifoy paints an elegant expression of the church calendar—Advent,

Lent, and Ordinary Time—with great depth of thought, expression, and insight. Planted in the

rich soil of everyday liturgy, Roots and Sky is an astonishing, rhythmic work of unmatched

artistry. There is no doubt: this book is a must-read for the lover of the quiet, contemplative, and

beautiful.

—Seth Haines, author of Coming Clean

 

“This is not a book. This is a sanctuary. I met God here, in the hushed and unrushed space that

Christie Purifoy has so exquisitely created for us. With a lyrical pen, Christie lights the candles,

prepares the altar, and helps us see the sacredness of our everyday moments. Step inside and

breathe again.”

—Jennifer Dukes Lee, author of Love Idol

 

“Roots and Sky is the best kind of read: it reached me, passively and deeply, as I got lost in the

pages. Christie ushered me into my own heart, through the back door, as she invited me across

the foyer and into the rooms and out onto the sprawling green lawn of her one hundred-year-old

farmhouse. God met me at Maplehurst, too.”

—Sara Hagerty, author of Every Bitter Thing Is Sweet: Tasting the Goodness of God in

All Things

What Were You Made To Do?

You were made for the impossible thing.

You were made for the goal you cannot conceivably achieve. You were made for the task you are ill-equipped to manage. The high bar you can never reach.

You were made for the thing that terrifies you the most. The thing those others can do but never you.

You were made for the dream too good even to dream.

Some of you know this. You have already seen that the impossible thing slowly, gradually becomes more than just an impossible thing. It becomes a prayer. In other words, impossibility is shot through with cruel desire. You hardly know how it happens, but somehow you begin to want this impossible thing.

Until, one day (but truly it is never one day; it is always slowly over many days) the prayer is answered. The promise inherent in prayer is fulfilled. And the impossible thing becomes a gift, given freely.

To you.

***

DSC_6539_1

***

Writing is my impossible thing. It is the dream I buried in a million books. Books I was convinced I could never write.

My friend Cara Strickland, a writer of delicious details, sent a few questions my way. They are questions meant for writers, but I’ve been considering them with all our many impossible dreams in mind.

  • What are you working on?

I am working on noticing.

The more I notice, the more convinced I become that our lives, and the world in which we live them, are not the chaotic, meaningless jumbles they often appear to be.

When I notice the connections among a few dots, I write out those connections here on this blog. I try to do this once per week, but dots do not always obey our commands (pleas, bribes, etc.) to reveal their associations.

But I keep showing up and, sometimes, I am rewarded.

Slowly (very slowly), I am also writing out the connections among some bigger dots. Dots like homesickness and desire and kingdom come. I am gathering up these bits in a file called “My Book.” We shall see whether the title of this computer file proves itself prophetic.

  • How does your work differ from others of its genre?

One of my greatest fears is that it does not. That, indeed, there is nothing new under the sun. But I find in the Psalms a command that has also become my prayer: “sing to the Lord a new song.”

I think this is why we are here on this planet. To sing to our God a new song. But, like most commands we find in the Bible, it is impossible. It asks too much. Every word I write rings in my ears like an echo of some other, better writer.

But I am learning to stand in the river that is the source of every new thing. I am learning to recognize the new when it bubbles up like a spring. New words, new stories, new beauties, new mercies. New is the keyword of the kingdom of God, and we are Christ’s own. We hold the keys to the kingdom.

  • Why do you write what you do?

I write because the world holds so much beauty my heart would break if I couldn’t pause and gather some of it up.

I write because there is a river, and it has filled me with good news. Somehow I, the quiet one, the cautious one, want only to “go up on a high mountain” and shout “Here is your God!” (Isaiah 40:9).

  • How does your writing process work?

It works like this: I stand near a sink overflowing with dirty dishes, a paper calendar in hand. I carve out quiet time. This is exhausting, difficult work. My knife is never sharp enough. And then, typically, I must let go of the time I have so carefully cut away. The baby does not nap, or the preschooler will not fulfill the “quiet” portion of his afternoon quiet-time obligation, or school is canceled, or I get sick, and on and on it goes.

Until, while wiping the counters or raking leaves or changing a diaper, I am visited by an image. Maybe two. The beginnings of a story.

***

My friend Laura Lynn Brown sings beautiful songs. She sings with words (you can find her award-winning essay “Fifty Things About My Mother” at Slate). She sings with paintbrush and pencil. She sings with an Irish flute. I’m passing the baton of these questions on to her. Look for her own thoughts on writing and the writing process at her website in the coming weeks.

Now tell me. How do you sing your own new song?

***

 “Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.”

(Psalm 98:1)

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