Homebound: From Mersea to Maplehurst, With Love (March 21)

Homebound: From Mersea to Maplehurst, With Love (March 21)

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

 

Dear Elizabeth,

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,

Christie

Maplehurst

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.

Where To Find Perfection

Where To Find Perfection

Bonica Bud and Pickett Fence

 

“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.

 

New Dawn Rose

Queen of Sweden Rose

American Beauty Climbing Rose

 

Praise be to God for roses.

Praise be to God for thorns.

*

In This End Is Our Beginning (On Going Home Again)

In This End Is Our Beginning (On Going Home Again)

Sisters and Cousins

 

A few years ago, soon after our move to Maplehurst, I wrote this prayer on a three by five index card:

Lord, please make a way for my extended family to gather more often.

I added it to the small stack I keep in my Bible, and I regularly remembered it in prayer. The paper is softer now, the ink a little bit smeared.

Soon, my husband and I and our four children will fly to Texas for Shawn’s burial. Since the accident in January, my daughter and I have traveled to Hawaii, my husband has made two trips to be with my sister and her kids in Kansas City, we sent our older daughter and son on their own to visit grandparents and cousins. And now we fly to Texas.

My prayer has been answered, but the answer to my prayer is loss.

*

I have not visited my hometown in a decade. My children have either never been or have no memory of the place, but because Jonathan and I and my sister and Shawn share the same Texas roots, we will gather there. We will gather with my parents and siblings, my nieces and nephews, my in-laws, and with Shawn’s family. We will be joined by my father’s west Texas family, by my mother’s California family, by high school friends and college friends and childhood church friends.

In Roots and Sky, I write:

“I have long wondered if home is the place from which we come or the place we are headed. The estrangement I felt from my surroundings as a child growing up in Texas has always meant that I tend to see home as my end and not my beginning.”

This is a return to our beginnings. I suspect that whatever I find there, I must bring it back with me, a little something extra tucked into my carry-on.

Home is our present and our past. Perhaps, it is time to make my own past welcome at Maplehurst.

*

That index card is still tucked into the back page of my Bible. I wanted to feel angry when I read it again, but I felt, instead, some mix of fear, awe, and resignation. I believe the prayer came from God as much as the answer, so I cannot muster up any anger, just as I never, truly, mustered up that prayer.

I only received it. Repeated it. Submitted to it.

Instead of anger, I feel compassion for that other me who prayed without seeing, without understanding, but with hope. I believe the prayer was good, and so I believe that the answer is good.

It is also terrible.

*

Twelve men died in those helicopters, but there will be only 9 coffins. We are all dust, and we all return to dust, but some are buried in earth and others are dust in the sea.

Some part of Shawn has been returned to us, and so we are lucky. We are blessed.

And what are blessings but those gifts that are hardest to receive?

Like this opportunity to gather. This opportunity to go home again. This chance to say hello to so many.

 

For this gift, this chance to plant our last goodbye in familiar dirt, we say thank you.

And we say, have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us.

 

We Will Stay

We Will Stay

Sunset in the rose canes

 

I write fondly of this beautiful, crumbling old house, but the actual crumbling makes me want to run away crying.

I crop and edit my instagram photos to emphasize beauty, but the truth is often a whole lot less beautiful. The truth is original wooden windows layered with paint. There are rotting sills and decrepit, ill-fitting storm windows. The truth is decay around the roofline soffits. The truth is window shutters so deteriorated I worry they’ll turn to dust if we remove them for repair.

Last week I stood on the lawn with a local carpenter. We craned our necks toward rotted wood three floors up. He heaved a deep sigh and said, “Honestly? I wouldn’t know where to begin.”

He told me some houses are like Hondas. You go to the shop, you buy a new part. But my house was a fancy sports car. Every replacement part costs more and is harder to find.

Is our home the shelter version of a foolish, midlife crisis? Because that isn’t the life I would choose.

The life I would choose is safe and sensible. It’s modestly priced. It’s manageable. Never overwhelming. In this dream life my sister and her kids live nearby. Showing up in the gap (the great and terrible gap) where Shawn once stood, would be easy and natural.

Life would be easy and natural.

 

Red barn through white pickets

Rose Garden Ornament

 

In Roots and Sky, I write that “I am living an adventure in stability. Mine is a pilgrimage in one place” (184).

When Jonathan and I arrived at Maplehurst with our three kids (and one on the way), we didn’t only feel called to come. We felt called to stay.

Jonathan is an engineer, I am a writer, our kids tug us in the direction of a dozen different hobbies and interests, but together our life as a family is about place-making. Together, we are cultivating a place; we are tending it, transforming it, and sharing it with others.

I always assumed our faithfulness to this vision would be tested. Perhaps I would resent the chickens and the gardens and wish for a summer-long road trip instead. Perhaps I would grow tired of canning tomatoes, cooking for others, and changing bedsheets for guests twice in one week.

Now, almost four years in and with this house on the cover of a book, it isn’t weariness but fear and desire that have caused me to question all of it.

This house needs more than we have to give.

What if we can’t keep up?

My extended family needs more than we have given in the past.

Shouldn’t we put their needs first?

 

While I was in Hawaii, someone asked if I would be willing to move to live nearer to Kelli and the kids. It broke my heart to say it, but I said it.

No.

I may be willing, but it still doesn’t feel like my choice. Or, if it is my choice, I will not choose to ignore the voice that has, for so long and so consistently, whispered only one word: stay.

We came to Maplehurst with vision. We knew our future was planted in this place. Yet the strange thing about vision is that sometimes you carry it around like a pair of eyeglasses in your pocket. The weight bouncing against your leg is the only reminder of everything you cannot yet see.

 

After the carpenter came two craftsmen. One loves old windows. One loves old plaster. They salvage the parts, or they make them with their own two hands.

I stood with one, our necks craned three floors up, and he said, “This isn’t a house. It’s a home.”

And I knew then he saw what I had seen, what I wanted to see again. Not rotting wood or peeling paint, but a home open enough for neighborhood Easter egg hunts and reunions of family and friends. A home spacious enough for nieces and nephews to spend every summer here.

A home powerful enough to draw us all away from the sensible and the manageable and on toward something much more terrifying, much more beautiful, and altogether more abundant.

 

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