Radical Lives and White Picket Fences

Radical Lives and White Picket Fences


I penned this blog post six years ago. Recently, a friend wrote to say she had long kept a printed copy of it but wondered if it still lived somewhere permanently online? I discovered that it did not. So, I’ve rectified that. For my friend. And for you, dear reader. Here is a new (old) blog post. A reminder for me and you of all the ways our beautiful, adventurous lives are built on letting go.


From old straw hat to converse sneakers, I am spattered. My husband has a shock of bright paint in his hair, and my boys are doused and dripping with it. The girls have wandered off, but I imagine cheeks freckled and shirts polka-dotted with paint.

We are painting the new picket fence around our garden, and we are painting it white.

This is the moment when I realize my life has become a cliché. Or maybe my life has become a literary allusion to a great American novel? No. That is too optimistic. Ours is outdoor latex from the big-box store not whitewash from Aunt Polly’s garden shed.

I’m not sure if this is cliché or idiom, but either way, it doesn’t look good.

The phrase white picket fence is a linguistic shortcut. A word picture. And we all know what it means. It means conformity. It means homogeneity. It means safety.

Would you believe me if I told you my own white picket fence is the picture of radical surrender?


I have hated the word surrender for years. It is barbed with guilt and shame. It reminds me of a time when I was afraid of my own dreams and desires. What is the point of dreaming my own dream if God has some other plan for me?

I was a child in the church, and I believed desires were destined for sacrifice. In my mind, following Jesus looked like Abraham raising his knife over his own, much-loved son.

Abraham surrendered himself in obedience, and I was always wondering when my own moment would come. I was young. I had no idea who I was or who I was made to be, but “deny thyself” was the religion I absorbed.

And so I hated and feared the word surrender. It was a thorn, it was a splinter, and I walked my own way with a limp.


Here is what I did not know: that moment when the knife was raised was only ever a moment. If we are following the voice of God, we do not live in that moment. It is a door. We hear Love calling our name, and we walk on through. We walk through to some other place.

Abraham stepped through that door and then spent a lifetime hugging his beloved son close.

I am a grown woman now, and I, too, have walked through that door. It wasn’t so dramatic. I am no Abraham, after all. But when I stopped teaching and began writing openly about my faith on the internet, I took a knife to the academic career I’d been building for years.

I heard love calling, and I walked in a new direction. I walked away from my carefully crafted resume. I walked away from college towns and a book about British writers of the 1930s. I walked away from office hours with some eager (and some very uneager) university students, and I walked toward something new. Something that looks, on the surface, a whole lot less important. Something that looks about as meaningful as the proverbial white picket fence.

But appearances can lie, and I am living a dream come true.

I followed Love toward a dream so buried I would never have found it without the help of a very sharp knife.

I didn’t know exactly what I would find on the other side of the moment. Surrender was terrifying, but one wild step led me here: to this farmhouse on the hill, to my writing desk by a window, to this white picket fence.

Which looks like safety but feels like adventure.


Photo by permission – Kelli Campbell.

My Favorite Roses

My Favorite Roses


To name my favorite rose varieties is a bit like being asked to name my favorite children. All of them! I want to say. But when you have one spot for a rose and thousands to choose among, a “Favorites” post is a very helpful thing.

Of course, it is only a starting point. Like a diving board into a very deep–and very wonderful–pool, let this little list be a starting point only. Because every garden is different, and every rose will respond differently, and, well, don’t let that overwhelm you. If you decide a rose isn’t happy in your garden–give it away! Or add it to the compost pile and try again.

This is supposed to be fun. And it is!

  • ‘Queen of Sweden’: A David Austin rose (pictured above). Tall, but not too tall. Graceful and healthy. This is one elegant, easy-to-grow rose.
  • ‘Lady of Shalott’: Another David Austin, this coral beauty blooms and blooms and blooms. It needs a bit of room for its tall arching canes. Very healthy in my hot and humid garden.
  • climbing ‘Cecile Brunner,’ the “Sweetheart Rose”: the climbing form of this rose is healthy and vigorous (mine used to romp all over the enclosed chicken run). I love the juxtaposition between small, perfect boutonnières and the vigorous size of the plant.
  • ‘Bonica’: A healthy, medium to large shrub covered in continuously blooming, ruffled, shell-pink roses. Just what a rose should be. The beautiful orange hips are an autumn bonus.
  • ‘Madame Hardy’: beautiful, spring-blooming antique rose. Flat white flowers with a green-button eye.


A New Point of View on Native Plants

A New Point of View on Native Plants


For too many years, I resisted learning about native plants because I associated that topic with grumpy, finger-wagging experts and uninteresting science. I longed for colorful, ornamental plants, and I didn’t want anyone to tell me I couldn’t have them.

It turns out, I had it all wrong.

I began to understand what I’d been missing when I visited the garden of a friend from church. She’s a bird watcher and a bird lover, and sitting on her patio  while she named the birds whose trills and melodies we could hear as we sipped our tea was unlike anything I had ever experienced.

“Why are there so many birds in your garden?” I asked.

“Because I made this garden for them,” she answered.

That day I could only dimly perceive what she meant, but as she walked me around her suburban yard, and later as I read some of the books she recommended, I realized that native plants don’t place a burden or a limit on our gardening practice, rather, they offer an invitation.

I had been so sure that the study of native plants would force me to identify some of the plants I loved as “bad,” that I had never really learned just how good a native plant can be. Native plants are our opportunity to restore habitats lost to development or other changes in the environment. Native plants allow us to feed insects, which means we are also feeding birds.

To fill our yards with native plants, is to enact a project of return and restoration. It is a way of reclaiming wonders that have been lost. And, assuming it isn’t a greedy invader, there’s no reason why we can’t plant natives and an ornamental exotic or two (or more!). Like so many complex subjects, this doesn’t have to be an either / or equation.

Give me peonies.

And give me the beautiful, spring flowering fringe tree chionanthus virginicus.

Seeds for Beauty and for Flavor

Seeds for Beauty and for Flavor


The French term potager expresses the beautiful, ornamental potential of edible plants.

A potager was traditionally a kitchen garden that emphasized beauty as well as fresh flavor. While you might find many of the same things growing in an ordinary vegetable garden and a fancy potager, the vegetable garden is more likely to have utilitarian rows of corn and potatoes and other “crops,” while the potager emphasizes eye-pleasing arrangements of fresh-picked beauties like lettuce, herbs, and even edible flowers. It might be helpful to think of a vegetable garden and a potager, not as distinctly different, but as gardens on a related spectrum. The vegetable garden at one extreme is entirely utilitarian. The potager at the other extreme might resemble the famous gardens at Villandry in France where blue leeks and red cabbages are planted out like annual flowers.

I lost my large vegetable garden with its picket fence and raised beds when we installed a new driveway here at Maplehurst. This year, I’ll be growing some of my own food again, but with a potager flare. I’ve identified a spot near our gravel terrace for four square beds. Here are a few of the eye-catching flavors I’ll be planting out in them:

  • ‘French Breakfast’ radish
  • ‘Cool Mint’ lettuce
  • Arugula
  • basil
  • Swiss Chard
  • ‘Lacinato’ kale
  • Nasturtium
  • Calendula
  • Cherry tomato
  • Beets (red and gold)
  • Jalapeno pepper
  • Mini yellow bell pepper
  • viola (like the Johnny Jump-ups pictured above)


Introducing: Paper&String

Introducing: Paper&String


For years my words have mostly been poured into my books.

Blog posts became more and more occasional.

We used to talk to one another in the comment section of this blog, and other blogs, but now we talk on social media. Yet I sometimes feel we have less to talk about when we are only responding to an Instagram caption or a Facebook link.

My days of regular, weekly blog writing have ended, but I have been searching for some new way to serve you: my readers.

Is there some way to give you carefully crafted words beyond the books I am continuing to write?

Is there some place where we can still gather and listen to one another? Somewhere quieter and more peaceful than social media, somewhere more communal than my blog?

Friends, there is!

You’ll discover it inside the pages of Paper&String.

Paper&String isn’t a blog, and it isn’t a newsletter.

It’s a digital monthly care package from the Black Barn created–not only by me–but by a community rooted in this place, a community of writers and artists, dancers and dreamers, placemakers and friends called the Black Barn Collective.

In each new Paper&String, we will invite you to







Even better?

We don’t simply want to share beautiful written words, gorgeous artwork, recipes, and other seasonal goodness inspired by Maplehurst–which we will!–we want to get to know you. We want to hear from you. And so, we will also be opening the doors to a virtual Black Barn. During the first week of February only, each subscription to Paper&String comes with membership into a beta online Black Barn community!

No matter where you live, no matter how many miles lie between the front door of this barn and your own front door, you can come in. You can join the Black Barn Collective. We can’t wait to get to know you.

Doors open but doors must also close if they are to shelter those inside. Enrollment is only open for the first week of February. We will open the doors to the virtual Black Barn again but only once we’re sure we’re serving our founding members well.

Sign up here to be notified as soon as subscriptions are open!

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