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.
Elizabeth and I exchanged a few “homebound” letters over Lent. The nature of a letter is to communicate over a distance, but the season of Lent introduces other distances – there is the space between winter and spring, the break between longing and fulfillment, and the chasm, so like a tomb, between death and new life. But what is Lent, after all, but a kind of long homecoming? It is a practice of return and a way of erasing distance.
Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them (Psalm 126:6).
This is the meaning of Easter.
Easter is watching all that miserable distance shrink, almost to nothing. Easter is no more letter-writing but a face-to-face encounter. Elizabeth and I haven’t yet achieved that, it remains our not-quite-yet, but here is our literary equivalent. Here, for you Elizabeth, and for each one of you reading along: your very own tour of Maplehurst at Easter time. I am so glad you’ve come to visit.
The first thing I say to almost every guest arriving at my front door for the first time is: You found us! It always seems slightly miraculous to me. These narrow, winding Pennsylvania roads twist and curl in a way that confounds even Google and every form of GPS.
But, Elizabeth, you found us!
Even after you discovered my road (a road once traveled by George Washington and Abraham Lincoln on journeys between Philadelphia and Baltimore), even after you crawled, slowly, down our long driveway, craning your neck to see the faraway tops of the maple trees meeting in a green cathedral ceiling overhead, even then there was the matter of our front door.
Where is it?
The apparent front of the house, facing the street, has no door, only a wide front porch and two tall windows. You followed the sign with its pointing arrow, glued to a rock at the place where the driveway splits, to the right. Here is a lamppost, here is a door painted the light green color of old copper, but is this the front door? The driveway curves on around the house, there is nowhere to park, and you were unsure. This is why you found me waiting and waving right there, half in and half out of the door.
You found us! You are here!
If this were your second visit, you would continue on the driveway’s curve around to the western side of the house. You would park your car next to my pickup truck near the old, red barn, and you would enter through the back door on that side of the porch. But this is your first visit, and I will open the front door, with its many glass panes, wide.
Here is the space we grandly call “the front hall,” but it isn’t so very big. A small, oval table sits in the center of an old red rug. The table once belonged to my husband’s great-grandparents in Mexico. I don’t know exactly why, but it looks right at home here at Maplehurst. On top is a glass vase I have filled with branches: the electric green of sassafrass buds and the starry white of spirea. The staircase with its scarred wooden banister moves up toward a tall window before turning out of sight.
Not only is it Easter now, but it is April, and the air is sweet in that way some people name warm and some people name cool. There is no need to pause at the coat closet. Instead, I place your bag on the table, take your hand, gesture to our left, and say,
“Here is the parlor. This is my quiet room. Unless the children are practicing their piano.”
I turn and indicate the room on our right,
“We call this larger room the family room, though I sometimes wonder what the Hughes family, who first built this house, would have called it.”
You see that a round, oak pedestal table sits in the curve of a bow window. The cloth is dark, dusty pink and covered in cabbage roses. I explain that it was once our kitchen table, but we, along with our guests, have outgrown it. Now it sits here for board games and library books and cups of tea with a view of the flower garden.
“Look,” I say pointing toward the garden just beyond the window, “Lent was for planting tiny shriveled pea seeds only to watch them be buried by snow. Easter is for that shower of wild violets. It has flooded the garden. Purple, lavender, white, and green everywhere you look. And there, in the middle of a purple sea, is my youngest. She is a hunter stalking dandelions. When she finds one, she will shout with pleasure before wishing, yet one more time, for a dog of her own.
Bless her heart. I’ve always insisted that Jonathan and I are not dog people, but maybe those dandelion wishes are more powerful than I know.
Would you like to step through to the kitchen?”
To be continued …
Elizabeth is giving me and my readers a personal tour of her home, Mersea. Will you join us?
For weeks now my children have not been able to stop themselves from singing April showers bring May flowers. Even the four-year-old, she who serenades her dinner companions every evening with the months-of-the-year ditty she learned in preschool, knows that this song is not yet quite appropriate. But each one of them also knows that it is raining, again, and something new is just there on the far side of the horizon.
And so they sing.
Today is the last day of March, and it is raining cats and dogs. It is raining puddles and mud. It is gushing, washing, rinsing, quenching. I planned to visit the library, but this rain is too much even for the tall, waterproof boots I wear in the garden. It is too much even for my one remaining unbroken umbrella. I am drinking tea and typing these words instead.
Someone sent me a message. You know about trees. Tell me, why is my river birch dripping water? Why is it trickling, oozing, seeping, leaking? Is something wrong?
Nothing is wrong, I told her. All trees know how to sing, but some trees also know how to cry.
When the weather turns from warm to wet, a birch tree will drip, drip, drip.
Last year in Hawaii, I saw trees sheathed in rainbows.
The rainbow eucalyptus thrives in tropical climates. It is happiest in rain-washed places. It sheds its bark, and what remains are long, vertical strips of color: red, orange, green, blue, gray. Rainbows trickle, ooze, seep, and leak their colors down the length of each trunk.
I saw those colors from the car window as we drove toward the North Shore. We had flowery leis in our laps. Later, we tore the string and tossed the flowers and said one more goodbye to the man who died just there, above those waters. Somewhere just to the right of the rainbow and to the left of the singing whale, he went where we cannot yet follow.
I visited my friend this week and saw a rough wooden cross in the corner of her small sitting room. It was our Christmas tree, she told me. Now it is our Easter cross.
I’m sure her tree was beautiful. I have forgotten the name, but she said it was some rare variety: silvery and soft. That beauty is lost. What remains is harsh and looked out of place propped in the corner of the room. It can’t be easy, I thought, to live with this cross.
Some legends say that Jesus’s cross was made from the wood of an aspen tree. Apparently, these trees do grow in that region of the world. No matter where they grow, aspen leaves startle and stir in even a slight breeze. It is said the tree trembles for what it has seen and how it was used.
I read somewhere that in Hebrew the name of this tree is baca. This is also the name of the “Valley of Weeping” mentioned in Psalm 84. When I go to check my memory against the knowledge of the internet, I find that baca might mean balsam-tree. It might mean mulberry.
It seems there are many trees associated with weeping.
In Psalm 84, the Valley of Weeping changes as we walk through it. By the touch of our feet, it becomes a place of springs. Then the early rains come, but they do not bring puddles or mud. They bring blessing.
I do not want to walk through the valley. I am tired of tears (drip, drip, drip). I do not want to trip over the ugly, bare cross in the corner of the room, and I certainly do not want to carry it on my back.
Today, I do not even want the rain.
But I want the rainbows. I want the May flowers. I want, yes I admit, I want the blessing.
I want to know what the trees have always known.
I want to know what it is to be planted, planted so deep and so well, that not even death can pull up these roots.
Oh, death. Where is your sting? You grab at us. You scratch and claw. And what is revealed?
On Saturday morning, Jonathan and I woke up in the dark.
I took my time peeling back the covers. I debated whether or not to change out of my pajamas. Eventually, I wrapped myself in a bathrobe and tiptoed down the stairs. Outside, I stepped into my tall, rubber gardening boots and wondered if Jonathan was inside warming his hands by the coffee maker or outside hiding eggs.
A pile of garbage bags, bright white beneath the moon, lay where they’d been tossed up the cellar steps. That was my answer.
I heaved up one of the bulging bags and began tucking cold, plastic eggs into every extra-tall tuft of grass.
The moon was bright and full, drifting behind the top of a spruce tree.
Around 6:30, I heard a whisper on the dark, “I feel like I’ve stepped into a book.”
One of our guests for the weekend, an old friend from Chicago who finished reading Roots and Sky on the flight into Philadelphia, was up and out, eager to help hide eggs.
By the time we finished, my back ached, but I could tell it was going to be a beautiful day. My fingers were stiff with cold, but the air was still and the just-rising sun promised a swift warmup. When our friend left for a jog, Jonathan and I slipped back into the kitchen for coffee, the giant pink magnolia fluttering its butterfly wings behind our backs.
“I think this will be the prettiest day we’ve ever had for the egg hunt,” I told him.
It was. The most peaceful, too.
The staggered start times for the egg hunt helped. From his perch on our stepladder, Jonathan made sure the younger hunters had found their first egg before he cried “ready, set, go” for the next group holding easter baskets and paper bags in excited hands.
Some kids found too many eggs, some found maybe not quite enough. One neighbor brought her pet bunny on a leash. Another neighbor wore full Easter Bunny costume and posed for pictures with wide-eyed kids.
I think it was the best egg hunt yet.
Now Easter has come and gone, and the world outside my window is responding with greener grass and tulip tops. The climbing rose over the vegetable garden arbor is suddenly furred with tiny leaves.
I should feel hopeful. I should rejoice. The tomb that held Jesus is empty.
But all our other tombs are not.
By Easter morning, the golden perfection of the previous day had vanished. The sky was low and gray, and a sharp, cold breeze had penetrated the kitchen. We didn’t light a fire in the woodstove, but we thought about it.
I assumed Easter would be the climax. After months of heartache, we gathered with our friends and neighbors on a perfect spring morning. But instead, Easter itself felt anticlimactic, as if the only thing to do now was wait.
Resurrection is a great promise for tomorrow, but what about today?
I have thought about that question all week.
I thought about it while I planted out violas and alyssum in the flower garden. I started those seeds under grow lights in the basement about a month ago.
I thought about it while I sat in a chair beneath the magnolia tree. In that spot, the chickens are noisy, the cat I am allergic to insists on jumping into my lap, but the air smells like honey.
I thought about it while I spread fresh wood chips on the paths between the beds in the vegetable garden. I even thought about it when Elsa brought me a handful of daffodils. She’d picked them, “for me” she said, from beneath the baby apple trees. The stems were too short for a vase, so I tucked them into my tiniest drinking glass.
One afternoon, I pulled up a recipe for dinner on pinterest, but another of my pins caught my eye. It was a graphic my sister Kelli made for me with one of her photographs and words from an old blog post. It said:
“We are not waiting for resurrection. We are living it.”
That is the truth I’ve been searching for all week. That is the truth I’ve been living all week.
The empty tomb isn’t the end. It’s the beginning. It is new life for me, today. It is hope for this world, today.
Shawn’s death isn’t the end. Not for him. Not for those he left behind. We ache. We grieve. But already we have seen beautiful things begin to grow in the emptiness.
Spring is a perpetual season. Its eternal roots lie within the very first Easter, like the few golden daffodils I tucked into our scarred, wooden cross. Jesus was a seed, planted in death and sprouted in resurrection, and that seed has been growing ever since. Because of Jesus, the Christ, who was and is and is to come, we are living a spring with no end. – Roots and Sky
All of the photos in this post were taken by my sister, Kelli Campbell, April, two years ago.
Our Easter feast began the day before, on Saturday morning. One hundred or so neighbors. Two thousand or so eggs. Warm sunshine and hot coffee. Conversation and sticky children.
Or maybe it began earlier that week. When my sister and her four children tumbled, along with the crayons and crumpled napkins, from their minivan. A three-day road trip from Florida suddenly ended.
It is Easter, and we have feasted. On cousins sprouting like weeds and epic games of Monopoly. On baby chickens discovering bugs and grass and baby lettuces discovering rain.
We have feasted on hard-boiled eggs turned somewhat unappetizing shades of blue and my mother’s recipe for Greek chicken.
But mostly, we have feasted on time. On moments stretching into days spent at the table side-by-side with family.
Family, for us, has always been feast or famine. Separated by miles, our mailing addresses like stars in a far-flung constellation, we do not relate casually. There is no dropping by. No Sunday lunches then home again. No Christmas gifts delivered in person. No grandparents to babysit for date night.
We have only not enough (telephone calls and emails) or too much (three daily cycles of the dishwasher and four of laundry just to keep the show running).
We know Lenten hunger, and we know Easter fullness.
Feast days leave little space for story-making. Not storytelling. There is time for that as we sit at table. Storytelling is a necessary part of celebration.
But story-making is born of hunger rather than plenty. It is our longing that reveals the contours of new dreams and new stories. Because we hunger, because we do not have, because we suffer, we search for meaning like desperate sailors search for land.
We search for cool blue in desert wastes. We search for Kelly green in stubborn snow.
In winter, we toss in our sleep, and we dream of spring.
In spring, we sleep dreamlessly and wake refreshed.
“For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”
“We thank and praise you, Lord, for the gift of your victory over death, for the gift of holy awe that comes upon us as we enter into our Easter joy. Christ has passed from death to life, may we always know you as our way through the desert, our food and drink as we thirst. You are our safe passage through treacherous waters and the home that awaits us at the end of all our journeys.”
– an Easter prayer, from God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter
Today, I glimpsed the first haze of pink on the old magnolia tree that towers over one corner of our yard. It is a magnolia tree worthy of a fairy-tale palace, but it presides over a chicken coop and a child’s yellow plastic swing. In summer it becomes the world’s largest shade umbrella, but in April it is a miracle. Too impossibly beautiful to be true.
I have witnessed this tree in bloom only once. I have waited eleven months to bear witness for a second time, but I am scheduled to leave town tomorrow for five days.
I can hardly bear it. Five days of good books and good talk and good friends, but I would trade all of it to be there the very moment the first pink flower opens. I imagine that if I am there I will finally solve a great mystery. If I stand still, and I do not blink, perhaps I can determine once and for all whether the flowers open or whether they alight on the branches like a flock of pink birds.
Last year, I blinked and became sure a great crowd of delicate rose-tinted wings had settled in the branches overnight.
Set your mind on things above. Those were the words I remember printed on the postcards and posters, magnets and bookmarks in the Christian bookstore I used to visit as a child. I do not remember any books in that store. But I remember Precious Moments figurines, and I remember those words.
Even as a child, I mistrusted them. And not only because they showed up on magnets meant to secure grocery lists to refrigerator doors.
They are good and true words. They are Scripture words, but they seemed at odds with my own way of seeing. As long as I can remember, I have been taken with the miniature flowers blooming in the crack of a sidewalk. With acorn caps like fairy hats. With the hollow spot in the trunk of the mulberry tree, just the right size for my small china dog.
In other words, I have always seen worlds at my feet. I have always seen infinity under a magnifying glass.
And if this great “above” is the blankness of the sky, if it is only a screen onto which I project my preconceived ideas about the Christ who is holding everything together, then I will stick with the things below. Not money or plans. Not ambition or to-dos. But the things we pass by in our rush toward all that does not matter.
Dead, brown grass beginning to creep with green.
Daffodil leaves like bunny ears reaching just a bit higher every day.
And even the heartbreak of tulip leaves chewed to the quick by hungry deer.
If I must set my mind on some thing above, I will not let it float too high. I will set it just there, no higher than the highest branch of the world’s most beautiful magnolia tree.
I will set it there, and remember what the stories say. That we began to walk with God in a garden. That Jesus the Christ gave the thief on the cross a great promise: Today you will walk with me in a walled garden, a paradise.
And I will turn my eye toward eternity in the very spot where eternity begins.
Which is the ground, the ever-flowing, ever-renewing, ground beneath my feet.