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
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,
I still remember when I discovered Hilary Yancey’s writing online. She writes the kind of sweet-sharp prose that I love. Hers is the beautifully precise storytelling that hurts a little to read but always in the best possible way. I remember thinking, “I hope she writes a book one day.”
I am so pleased to share the following guest post from Hilary with you. She writes for those who are waiting for help or good news but worry time is running out. She writes for those who wonder why there seems to be no miracle for them.
Hilary reminds me that good news unfolds in time. Rarely can we receive it in an instant. Instead, it is, like grace, something that reveals itself slowly. But given time, it will sink its roots down deep into our lives changing, not only our present and our future, but our past as well.
I was all grace-less worry the first six weeks of my son’s life. He was born into the bright steadying lights of the NICU. He was born into weeks of poking, prodding, scoped up and down. His first pictures besides our Instagram snapshots were the flickery black and white of heart and head and kidney ultrasounds.
Two by two, we would go into that ark, my husband and I. Two by two, and no more than that at a time. In the mornings the attending physicians and residents would form a crescent moon standing around his bassinet, and the real moon would take the night watch alongside us.
We are all born into motherhood. The labor is from us, and for us, and so I too was welcomed by bright lights and pulsing blue and red monitors. I too was born into an endless click, click of blood pressure cuffs and kinked IV needles and blanket forts to hide us while we slept.
This birthing birthed in me a worry of keeping it together, of keeping on for him, a worry of being enough. I have known this worry before, but it has a different shape in the helpless hallways of a hospital. I was told by every sign and monitor and nurse who ran past me for the red or yellow alarm that I – the mother, the one they say is everything and has been everything – was not the only person my son needed. I was reminded of this when I had to leave Jack’s bedside or faint from not eating. I was reminded when I tossed and turned in the hotel bed that felt suddenly empty.
It ripped me wide, this birth into hand sanitizer rituals and the required removal of wedding rings, these quiet conference rooms where the patient in bed 34 was the topic of conversation, where my son was the patient in bed 34. In all this worry I lost the thread that binds us back together. I lost the thread of the hem of the robe of Jesus.
I think of the woman and her hemorrhages. I think of myself and the way I seemed to hemorrhage confidence and trust as I walked the same dreaded hallways. Is that how she felt, finally seeing his feet passing her by, walking somewhere else? Why didn’t he stop for me – I’ve been here for years – what other house must he go to? What other miracle is more worthy than mine?
I became, this past year, the woman suffering from hemhorrages. I sat down on the side of the road and day after day I thought Jesus would never walk by, that I would never get the chance to reach out for his robe. I wondered if there was any strength left to do even that. When I was pregnant with my son I used to read him the Jesus Storybook Bible. “‘We don’t have time!’ Jesus’ friends said. But Jesus always had time. He reached out his hands and gently lifted her head. He looked into her eyes and smiled. ‘You believed,’ he said, wiping a tear from her eye, ‘and now you are well.’
Just then, Jairus’ servant rushed up to Jairus. ‘It’s too late,’ he said breathlessly. ‘Your daughter is dead.’ Jesus turned to Jairus. ‘It’s not too late,’ Jesus said. ‘Trust me.’”
There is the place where Jesus is going. And then there is the woman I believe he always waited for along the road. I believe that road wanders through the bright hallways of the hospital, past me, that he always has enough time for me to reach out for his robe.
And now, one year later, I open the book to this page, to this story. I am the woman with her fingers grasping the edge of Jesus and I am the woman receiving grace from him, a grace that pours back over the worrying, the disbelieving, the many days when I walked the hallways in quiet desperation. Even when I thought there was no time – Jesus has always had more than enough. Jesus was waiting, maybe even trusting, that we will stop him and touch the hem of his robe.
Hilary Yancey is mama to Jack, wife to Preston and in the midst of getting a PhD in philosophy from Baylor University. When she isn’t chasing an idea, a busy toddler, or learning the first few steps in her adult beginner ballet class, you can find her writing at her blog the wild love or on Instagram at @hilaryyancey.
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Today, this little book of mine turns one. Alas, I did not bake a cake, but I might have to do something about that later today.
For those of you who haven’t yet picked up a copy of Roots and Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons, it’s a love letter to an old farmhouse called Maplehurst and an invitation to discover the wonder of a God who would choose to make his home with us. You can read all about the book right here.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that “These Farmhouse Bookshelves” is my occasional series of book recommendations. In honor of my own book’s first birthday, I thought I’d tell you about a few just-released books as well as some old favorites of mine.
In Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World, Amy Peterson has written a different kind of missionary memoir. This isn’t a triumphant tale of changing the world, rather it is honest, thoughtful writing about a missionary learning to rest in her own belovedness. A great book for world-changers as well as the ones who feel a little more ordinary than that.
In Katharina & Martin Luther: The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk, Michelle DeRusha has written a biography of one of the most influential marriages in history. Compulsively readable and thoroughly researched, here is a book for those interested in history and theology as well as for those who simply love a good story, well told.
The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb: Searching for Jesus’ Path of Power in a Church That Has Abandoned It is a timely new release from Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel. Having suffered from their own misplaced desires for relevance and influence, Goggin and Strobel go in search of a better way. A mix of storytelling, theology, and personal interviews, here is wisdom for these days from J.I. Packer, Dallas Willard, Marva Dawn, John Perkins, Jean Vanier, James Houston, and Eugene Peterson.
Finally, I have two more seasonally appropriate suggestions.
Though I rarely reread fiction, I have read and reread The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder many times since I discovered it as a child. This true tale of how Laura and her pioneer family survived the historic winter of 1880-81 is the most exciting of the Little House books. I am about to begin reading this one aloud to my own kids.
The writer Laura Brown has organized an online book discussion for The Long Winter on her website MakesYouMom.com. I may even contribute an audio file of me reading aloud from the book (then you’ll know just what my children have to put up with! Wink, wink). All the information on the book club is right here.
And if reading about winter is too much for you during winter, or if you live in Texas or Australia where it’s either summer or feeling like summer, I suggest one of my favorite novels: The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden. This coming-of-age story set in the post-war French countryside is as delicious as the ripe plums that give the book its title. Tense, atmospheric, exciting, and intelligent, I love this story in any season. You can read my full review on Goodreads.
I love the book so much I ordered a Greengage plum tree for my own backyard. It should arrive for planting in March.
Tell me, what are you reading these days?