A garden, unlike a house, is never still. It is not an object but a moment. To observe a garden, one must catch it like a butterfly in a net (but please do let it go again. Beauty cannot be preserved or it ceases to be itself).
When I give someone a tour of the gardens here at Maplehurst, I catch myself crying, “Oh, if only you had seen the daffodils that bloomed last week.” I am like a mother pouring over baby photos while the child who was that baby tugs at my hand, begging me to play another round of Candyland.
My heart inclines towards nostalgia, and I am easily tangled in the past, but today’s garden is only for today. I must pay attention or I’ll miss it, and there are no encores, no second chances.
Why keep a garden? Why grow flowers? The arguments against it are persuasive. A garden will keep you tethered because to plant something is to make a promise: I will clear the weeds from around you, I will bring you water when the sky turns dry. I will not walk away.
But there are worse things than being kept at home because someone there needs us. The word “homebound” alludes to difficult and heartbreaking realities, but it also speaks of the way home can hold us and keep us steady. And to live as one “bound for home” is to live as a pilgrim sure of the welcome that waits for us.
Right now this garden flows as swiftly as a swollen river. By mid-summer, its movement will have slowed to a trickle, though it never does stop.
The gift of a garden is that it brings movement and change to the still point that is our home.
In spring, I lift my eyes from washing dishes, feeding children, folding laundry, and all those tasks that keep me tied, through love and obligation, to this place. I lift them toward the open window, and I say,
Look! The world is new again.
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 introduced other distances – there was 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).
For Elizabeth and I, Easter has meant trading the distance of letter writing for the intimacy of a visit, first with a home tour and today with a tour of the garden.
Here is our invitation to Elizabeth’s garden at Mersea.
My children have spent the past week with their grandparents. Untethered from their needs, I spent the week living in my head.
Daydreams, interior monologues, thoughts, prayers, and wishes: the inner world is my favorite landscape.
It is quiet there, and I am all alone.
I set several overly-ambitious writing goals for the week. I also determined to catch up on every gardening chore and organize the house from top to bottom. In 90-degree heat.
It was a plan guaranteed to ensure that by the time my children returned, I would feel like a miserable failure who had squandered the most precious days that ever were.
The gardening chores have at least forced me to temporarily abandon my inner world. Daydreams evaporate very quickly when one is sweating, swatting mosquitoes, and cursing one’s inability to properly stake a sprawling cherry tomato plant.
Also, there are flowers. I am finding this summer that I do not think very much in the flower garden. There is something about the overpowering scent of oriental lilies that empties my head of everything else. Only a few days in to my full immersion in the life of the mind, I decided that it is a good thing to take a break from oneself. My inner world, as much as I love it, can be exhausting.
I do not think I would like to live there full-time.
Something else happened while the children were away: I turned on the car radio. I am not sure why I so rarely do that. Perhaps it is the demands from my little companions in travel for this music but not that. Perhaps it is my own need to control the tunes that tickle their ears.
I hopped in the car for the first time in days only because a few library books were due and our first bag of peaches was ready at the orchard where we participate in a fruit-share CSA. I do not think that anything less than library books and peaches could have convinced me to leave the quiet oasis of my child-free house.
Left to my own devices like that, I found myself punching the AM/FM knob. I had to take my eyes off the road for quite a dangerous stretch before my fingers found a tiny button labeled “seek.”
I don’t know what I was seeking, but a familiar voice filled the car. It was a childlike voice and instantly recognizable to me. I was a little girl in the early 80s, and the voice of Cyndi Lauper will always recall that one memorable sleepover when my best friend Michelle and I decided to find out how many times in a row it was possible to view that classic 80s film Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. I think we watched it two-and-a-half times through before Michelle fell asleep.
In April, in Texas, the very first person who greeted me when we arrived at the cemetery for Shawn’s burial was Michelle’s mom.
I was holding two children by the hands and feeling a bit dazed by the heat and the crowd and the terrible finality of a flag-draped coffin. I was searching for a path through the people who had gathered around a small tent and a few rows of folding chairs, when she suddenly appeared beside me and put her hand on my arm. I had not seen her in years, but I had no trouble recognizing the woman who placed our after-school snacks with such care on those tv trays, the same woman who never complained when Michelle and I brought home sticky gumballs we had spit out and saved from the gumball ice-cream cones we purchased at the mall.
I sort of love Cyndi Lauper’s strange voice. She always sounds a bit like a little girl, and my best friend Michelle will always be, for me, the little girl I loved best. I wish I could call her up and tell her that, but Michelle died in a car accident not long after I graduated from high school.
There’s a kind of epiphany that only comes when the music is turned up loud and you are all alone in the car. It’s a strange mix of sadness, joy, and gratitude.
Half my mind was singing Time After Time and the other half was recognizing what a privilege it is to sweat in my garden and run dirty, weed-stained fingers through hair that is beginning to gray. What a privilege it is to feel overwhelmed by four children, to bicker and then make up with the same man for twenty years. How glad I am for this life of interruption and inconvenience and heartache.
It’s a good thing to stop on a too-hot summer day and remember and cry for those who left us too soon.
We are following fast on their heels, but meanwhile, there are flowers to grow and meals to prepare and stories to tell. And there are songs to sing.
Loudly and with the windows rolled down.
“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.
After Shawn’s accident in mid-January, I hardly read a thing. I would sometimes pick up a book, but I couldn’t quiet my mind enough to read it. Life was too heavy, and it wasn’t possible to slow down without feeling the weight of it all. If I sat still in a chair for five minutes, I would feel that weight settle until my arms would lower and I had set my book aside.
Since we returned from the burial in Texas, I’ve been reading almost constantly. I am weary in my bones, tired out by grief and small talk. Temporarily at least, it is a relief to let myself fall, forgetfully, into the world of a book.
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout is simple yet searing, a short novel that consists almost entirely of one young woman’s reminiscences and conversations while recovering from an illness in the hospital. For so many reasons, this is my literary ideal. I read the entire thing in awe that Strout could shape the most ordinary words and experiences into something so powerful. Lucy Barton’s voice will be in my head for a long while.
I did not choose to read Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World: A Memoir because of our experiences as a family during the past few months. I’m fairly certain I put a library hold on the title without remembering the subject, and it was delivered to my local library branch a few weeks ago.
Elizabeth Alexander is a well known poet (I remember appreciating the poem she wrote for the occasion of President Obama’s first inauguration), and this is a memoir about her marriage, her husband’s unexpected death, and the first year of life without him.
Honestly, it’s the kind of book I tend to avoid (too sad!), and there has certainly been no forgetfulness while reading it. Yet, I am so glad it found it’s way to me now. It’s as much about marriage as it is about loss, and Alexander’s observations and descriptions of both are exquisite. There is a great deal of joy in this book: the joy of cooking and eating, of making art, of gardening, and the joy of witnessing your children’s growth. Alexander is open about not being a religious person, and yet her poetic sensibility and her faith in the truthfulness of poetic logic gives this honest book a spiritual weightiness that I appreciated very much.
Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson couldn’t be more different. This hilarious domestic memoir (those savages are Jackson’s four children) is from the queen of the creepy tale. You’ve probably read her famous short story The Lottery. Her books We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House are wonderful, spooky classics.
Life Among the Savages, published in 1953, describes another world (pregnant mothers who are never far from their cigarettes and children who play cowboys and Indians with television swagger), but it is hilarious precisely because it describes so well the day to day insanity of life with small children.
My strongest feeling while reading this book was gratitude. Somehow, Jackson’s deadpan delivery and knack for dialogue reminded me how sweet this phase of life can be. Yes, our houses are a mess and children possess an illogic that cannot be reasoned with, but, this book seems to say, isn’t it wonderful?
In my own book news, you can listen to an interview I recently gave about Roots and Sky. Here is my conversation with Cara Strickland for Off the Page. We talk about writing, home, seasons, liturgy, and family.
And, you are all invited to join the Summer Book Club at Grace Table. This summer’s pick is Roots and Sky, and the conversation takes place in June. Sign up today!
Now tell me: which books are saving your life lately?
Yesterday, there was softly falling snow. Today, there is a hard rain hurling itself against the windowpane.
In my ears, the quiet shush of snow has always sounded like the voice I most want to hear. It has always seemed like the embrace of the One who is so often hidden from us.
But if the snow whispers I Am, this rain screams Why? Why? Why?
It is the unanswerable question the world keeps on asking. Why do terrible things happen? Why did this terrible thing happen?
To be honest, it’s a question I don’t want answered. At least not yet. If there is an answer, I know that I am not ready to hear it. The only question I feel able to ask is this: what happens next?
What comes after the nightmare?
The answer I’ve considered this week has surprised me. I am not sure why that is when I have felt it before. For me, what comes after the nightmare is a strange sort of peace.
I once watched my son begin to die in a suburban Florida frozen yogurt shop. Two bites in to his dairy-free frozen treat and some trace contamination caused his throat to swell shut. I realized what was happening in the same second that I realized I had forgotten to carry his epi-pen.
A stranger in that shop saved my son’s life when she pulled an epi-pen junior from her purse. She had curly, red hair and two kids by her side. I struggled to uncap the pen because my hands would not stop shaking.
My son recovered so quickly he didn’t even need to ride in the ambulance that arrived a few minutes later. But it took me longer to recover. It took a long time for my hands to stop shaking and an even longer time to realize that all the fear I had carried since my son’s first allergic reaction was gone.
I felt sad and guilty and shaky, but I was no longer afraid. I understood that I could never keep my son perfectly safe. I understood that life and death are so much bigger than I am. So much bigger even than the love a mother has for her child, and that both, life and death, are held in someone else’s hands.
Today, again, I am sad and shaky. Today, again, I feel guilty. Before, I felt guilty and ashamed because I had risked my son’s life through forgetfulness. Now, though I recognize it isn’t logical, I feel guilty that I still have a husband. That my children still have a father in their house.
But I am not afraid.
I no longer think that losing my husband or even my child to death would be the end of me. I could lose even this house, this hilltop where I have planted so much of myself, and still go on. I have seen how it is possible to smash into a thousand pieces yet remain, not happy, certainly, not well, or whole, but held. Sustained. I have seen how God carries us through the very thing we imagine we cannot endure.
It is written, “perfect love drives out fear” (I John 4:18). I have read those words and imagined this love like something familiar, something sweet like the candy hearts my children have been eating for days. But fear is powerful. Enormous. It takes a very big love to drive it out.
I don’t know if this love causes terrible things.
I don’t know if this love allows terrible things.
All I know is I cannot look at the terrible thing without also seeing love.
I hate the sound of this driving rain. I don’t like the questions it is stirring up. But though I still long for the comforting blanket of yesterday’s snow, I am grateful for any rain that washes all my fears away.
I am grateful to be where I am. Here, in the churning, foaming center of a great river of peace.
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 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
—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
—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