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 9 here. My response is below.
March 21, 2017
from my armchair near the window, with its view of soggy earth and snow
I, too, have been traveling, though I have not left this place.
My feet were firmly planted in spring. The early daffodils were up and nodding their heads, and the giant magnolia tree was a haze of pink. The two forsythia shrubs in our front lawn were beginning to pop, like yellow corn kernels tossed in a hot pan. But last Tuesday the wind picked up and hurled snow, then ice, at our window glass. It’s so loud, the kids said. And just like that I found myself in a winter world. And not winter’s last gasp, either, but winter as dark and ice-locked as any day in January.
Today, the calendar says spring, but the snow is retreating slowly, and the growing tips of the daffodils look bruised. They remind me of that proverb once bitten, twice shy. They look as hesitant as I feel. A few new projects beckon, and I have felt some old dreams stirring, as if their time draws near, but can I trust the weather?
You write of seeds. You say they are worth the wait. Yet even the seeds I planted in those warmer February days now trouble me. I have a long row of sweetpea seedlings on my kitchen windowsill. They are overgrown. White roots are beginning to worm their way out of the bottoms of the tall peat pots. Yet I cannot plant them out while snow is on the ground. I worry they will end up feeding the compost heap rather than scrambling up the lattice prepared for them in the garden.
Because it is Lent, I have been pausing throughout each day with a prayer book. Recently, my prayer book reminded me that March 25 will mark nine months before Christmas. On this day, the church celebrates the message the angel Gabriel brought to Mary. We remember how she said yes though she did not understand how such an impossible thing could come to be. How right it seems to recall, in these dark and muddy days of earliest spring, the seed that was planted within one young woman. The refrain for this week’s prayers is this: “On this day the Lord has acted; we will rejoice and be glad in it.”
I can remember a spring morning five years ago. I woke with those same words already dancing through my head: “This is the day … let us rejoice and be glad in it.” The words startled me. I was living then in a wilderness place, desperate for hope, desperate for newness, and praying for a home, yet it seemed, if the words in my head could be trusted, that something had shifted.
The following day, Jonathan returned from a business trip. He told me he had been offered a job in Pennsylvania. We could move as soon as we found a home, and the home we found not long after was Maplehurst.
First, there is the seed, planted in darkness. Only later, new life, miraculous, impossible.
Sorrow and joy do co-exist, as you wrote to me, and that is never more true than while we walk this sharp edge between winter and spring.
When I began this letter, the sky was low and gray. Now it is striped with blue, and I can see the shadows of the maple trees. Perhaps hope is not such a foolhardy thing. The sun seems to say, This. This is the day.
with grace, peace, and, yes, hope,
His feet are clay.
As has ever been true of kings.
Some might say there is nothing in this to grieve. Nothing to cause fear. Certainly no reason for surprise.
What was true of Daniel’s king, was true of David, and true of Solomon, too. Has, in fact, been true of every man or woman to whom we have bowed or pledged our allegiance.
But I have heard the bitter weeping of the envoys of peace, and I am not satisfied with explanations or arguments or platitudes.
I go on dreaming. I go on singing. I go on telling tales of a better king.
This king “will take pity on the weak and the needy.”
This king will “defend the afflicted among the people.”
This king will “will be like showers watering the earth.”
My eyes have seen the king in his beauty.
I have glimpsed a land that stretches afar.
It is a peaceful abode and a place of broad rivers and streams.
No galley with oars rides them. In this place, even the lame carry off plunder.
Because the loaves and fishes are ever being broken and passed on, they multiply. Because the jar of oil is always being emptied, that jar is never dry. There is more than enough for me and my neighbor.
There is even enough for my enemy.
This is the song I sing, yet I cannot always be singing.
When I pause my song, when I wake, or when my story reaches its end, I weep.
I weep because the king we hold in our hands falls so very short of the king who ever walks on the edge of my dreams.
I sit by the river, and I weep when I remember all that I have seen. I weep when I remember the prayer of generations:
Thy kingdom come … on earth as it is in heaven.
*my own song is inspired by Psalm 72, Psalm 137, and Isaiah 33
I always know just how long it’s been since we moved to this old farmhouse called Maplehurst. I can judge it by the length of her curls and the stoutness of her legs.
I was eight-months pregnant when I watched the London Olympics surrounded by teetering piles of unpacked cardboard boxes. Elsa Spring was born six weeks after we moved in. This week she and I watched Olympic “gymtastics” while I held her on the sofa in the family room.
I wrote about our first year in this place in a book called Roots and Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons. I wrote about how small and slow this new beginning was for us. We had such big dreams. I wanted to see them realized immediately, but before we’d even unpacked all of the boxes, I had a baby daughter in my arms. Not long after that, winter settled in. Ice on the windowpanes. Ice in my veins.
That first year was a year for slow and small. Those first four seasons were all about be still.
And since then? The days have continued to feel slow and small and ordinary. It is only when I look back, only when I take in the full sweep of four years all at once, do I feel that explosion of new life.
Nothing has been small. Nothing has been slow. Nothing has been ordinary.
All along, God has been doing a new thing. And I am a witness.
What has happened in four years? We welcomed a daughter, we watched four children grow, I wrote a book, we built gardens, and we have almost filled our guestbook with names. I wrote about that, the guests and the flowers, in a recent piece for Art House America. You can read my quiet manifesto here.
We continue to dream new dreams for this place and for those who join us here, which means we continue to wade through the small, and the slow, and the ordinary.
The house is wrapped in scaffolding, but thanks to the care of two men, the one-hundred-and-thirty-year-old bricks haven’t looked this solid since the year they were laid. The worn, black shutters have been removed, and the day when we will reinstall them, either repaired or remade, feels impossibly far away. One by one, a local craftsman is restoring our windows, but it could be years before every window in this house is repaired. Yet once stripped and repaired, these old windows with their wavy glass will welcome cool breezes for another hundred years.
It feels, four years on, as if we are still in the messy middle. Those words I wrote in Roots and Sky have lately come floating back into my mind:
We love beginnings, and we privilege endings, but we live most of our lives in some sort of middle. Life is perpetually unfinished. That is its nature. – Roots and Sky, p 122
Unfinished it may be, but I can say with confidence that here at Maplehurst I have seen the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. And that is enough for me.
God’s goodness and the world’s grief are not as irreconcilable as I sometimes think. Four years ago, I could not have anticipated the sorrows that would visit us in this place. I wrote about the grief of that first, hard winter in Roots and Sky. I have written about other sorrows here on this blog.
Four years ago, I could not have anticipated how much would be given and just how much would be taken away. It is good that I did not know. It is good because I would have weighed it all in some balance. I would have asked if the gains compensated for the losses. Would there be more laughter than tears? More happiness than grief?
But I have learned that joy spreads its roots through laughter and tears. I have learned that sometimes we receive the most when something precious has been lost. Abundant life is mystery, not mathematics. Or perhaps, mathematics, which I’ve been told is the language of the universe, is more mysterious than I knew.
There is a wise woman in Proverbs. She is one who “can laugh at the days to come.” What will the next four years bring? I feel too sobered by the recent past to laugh. Considering time, I cannot help but tremble. It is so clearly held in hands that are not mine.
I may not be laughing, but I do feel very small and very still. Four years on, I am no longer fighting the wisdom of this place. So much has grown here in these four years: a baby girl, a book, a ring of apple trees. The soil here was always fertile, but we have watered it faithfully with our tears. I cannot say with certainty what we will harvest next, but I think the harvest will be a good one. Perhaps our best yet.
Perhaps our next harvest will be laughter.
“Nothing is perfect.”
Those words cut me. They always have. I don’t care if they’re true because everything in me wants them to be untrue. Everything in me longs for perfection though perfect is as cold and distant as the morning star.
Yet here is the lesson I keep learning over and over again: when perfection falls to earth it veils its light in imperfection.
This house is my perfect dream come true, but Lord-have-mercy it is a mess.
Half the windows can’t be opened, whole chunks of molding are missing near the roofline, there is an ominous bulge in the plaster wall along the stairs, and please do watch your step on the porch. You never know when your foot might crash right through.
I wrote these words in Roots and Sky, though I did not know how true they would become:
“… I picture this house, this hilltop, cracked open. Torn right open. And everyone invited to come in. In this picture, it seems that something precious has been emptied out and is being passed around. It is a frightening, exhilarating vision.”
The thing about a broken, imperfect house is that we cannot live in it alone.
When I met Dr. B (“doctor of old houses”), he told me he had prayed God would bring him another old house to work on.
When I called J about our windows and gave him my name, we both held our phones in a state of shock. Apparently, he had purchased Roots and Sky for his wife only the day before.
Jonathan and I always hoped that this place would be a blessing for many beyond our own immediate family. We glimpsed how that could be true our very first Easter when one hundred neighbors joined us to hunt eggs on the lawn. We sent those invitations to a neighborhood of strangers because we were lonely.
I called these local craftsmen because our house is broken.
Perfectly, beautifully broken.
Praise be to God for broken houses, broken hearts, broken bodies, and all the other precious broken things.
Praise be to God for hands that heal and hands that make things beautiful and whole.
Praise be to God for roses.
Praise be to God for thorns.
Ready or not, I will write about simplicity.
But are you ready to read words on simplicity by a woman who lives in a 7-bedroom farmhouse on four-and-a-half acres?
Because even if I explain that three of those bedrooms are on the third floor. That they don’t all have closets. That the ceilings slope against the eaves of the roof so that it is hard even to stand up in places; even then, I am describing abundance and not simplicity, aren’t I?
Here is where you might expect me to say that simplicity is a matter of the heart. It’s what’s on the inside that counts!
I am not going to say that.
True simplicity does reach all the way into our hearts, but it is also very much about our stuff. Our houses. Our land. Our clothes and cars and gadgets and machines. Our credit cards and bank accounts and pantries. The number of bedrooms, the size of our kitchens, the bins stuffed with toys.
All of it.
Why did Jesus tell so many, so often to get rid of their belongings? To store up a very different kind of treasure?
He wanted us to live like flowers. Like birds. Free of everything that would weigh us down.
It isn’t only my freedom at stake.
I recently found an old shirt in my closet. The label said Made in Bangladesh. I remembered the garment factory fire. I remembered how only a few months later, another garment factory collapsed. I wondered if the hands that had made this shirt were still alive, still sewing clothing for western consumers hungry for bargains. How had those hands suffered?
My desire for stuff, and the choices I make when I spend money have far-reaching implications.
You know this. I know this. But who has the time, the energy, the knowledge to make only perfect choices?
It’s all so complicated. So hopelessly complicated. When what I want is peace. What I want is simplicity.
Of course, there is one easy answer. One simple way to begin: live with less.
Don’t buy it (even though it’s cheap). Give it away (even though I might need it some other day). Let it go (though I wonder who I am without this possession).
I think about letting go, and I suddenly remember something important. How could I have forgotten? It was letting go that led me here. Here, to this abundance of bedrooms and growing gardens.
I let go of a career. I gave away the dream that had fueled my living for so long. I cast my bread upon the waters and what came back was the bread I longed to eat. The bread I could break over and over and give away: seven bedrooms (every one of which will be full this weekend) and ground to cultivate (food to eat, food to share) and words of life (my book coming to you next February).
So much wisdom on living in simplicity begins with giving stuff away. Clean out your closet, purge the toy bin, carry it all to the thrift store. Feel yourself breathe.
But I never understood. I am not a born minimalist. I like stacks of books (the more the better), I like pretty bits and bobs with sentimental value. I like knowing I can throw a party for a crowd with the contents of those three drawers.
Giving things away also felt like cheating. Isn’t it much harder to stop accumulating things than to give them away once I have?
But giving things away is like a muscle in need of exercise.
Give away the clothes, the toys, some books.
Give away the car, the job, the dream. Break the bread. Spill the oil. Keep giving until you wake up one morning and realize you have given away your life.
Because that is the morning you begin to live.
I grew up in Texas. In that place, it is possible to be surprised by spring. A river of bluebonnets might bubble up overnight. A heatwave might suddenly stake its claim on a handful of early February days.
Here, among rolling Pennsylvania hills, spring is never a surprise.
We wait so long for spring, and its coming is so slow, that no change appears without being watched from a great distance and for a long while. The view from my office window today is as brown and bleak as ever, but for days, weeks, even, I have watched the buds on the forsythia swell.
The snowdrops in the lawn do tend to pop up without warning, but no sooner have I noticed them than my two-year-old daughter has flattened the whole patch with one pink, rubber boot.
Observing a northern spring, I realize how small a great, new beginning can be. I dream of spring all winter, but the dream comes true only in fits and starts. In much waiting and a great deal of work with shovels, rakes, and pruners.
I once dreamed of becoming a mother, but the dream was realized in sleepless nights and temper tantrums (hers and mine).
I once dreamed of a farmhouse home, and the dream came true as we cleared hornet nests from behind every window shutter and poison ivy from every fence and tree.
I once dreamed of becoming a writer, and that dream came true through the slow, daily accumulation of words.
But dreams are like spring.
There will always be some moment of joyful recognition. Some moment when the dream drifts down around you. Light, like dandelion fluff, but real enough to see and touch.
Perhaps when the baby says I love you. When a friend says your home is so peaceful. Or, maybe, when you read the proposed back-cover copy for your book and burst into tears. Because, for the first time, the book with your name on it sounds, even to you, like a good book. Like the kind of book you would love.
It is like the moment when the magnolia opens its first pink blooms. It won’t matter then that I’ve been studying those gray buds all winter. It won’t matter that I noticed the first narrow edge of pink weeks ago.
I have lived enough springs to know that I will always greet that moment with astonishment.