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.
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
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!
I recently had the privilege of joining Susie Davis on her Dear Daughters podcast. In preparation for our conversation, Susie asked if I would pen a letter to my younger self. You can listen to our full interview right here. The letter I shared with Susie and her listeners is printed for you below.
Dear Twelve-year-old Christie reading her copy of The Secret Garden for the third time,
I know that book is filling your heart with a sweet but painful ache. I know you want a garden of your own.
I remember how those descriptions of an English springtime blooming with daffodils sent you straight outside into your father’s Texas garden. But I also remember what you found there: mosquitoes, fire ants, scorching heat, and a humidity so thick it took your breath away.
You gave up. You did not ask your Dad “for a bit of earth” as Mary had in the story. You would never grow beautiful things. Didn’t have what it takes, apparently. Best to stay indoors and read another book and another book and another book until the Texas summer finally gave way to the first cold front of November.
Dear girl, so hungry for beauty. Keep reading those books. Keep dreaming of daffodils with yellow trumpets through you have never seen them with your own eyes. That desire for a bit of earth has been planted in you by your Maker. It is good no matter that it hurts so much right now. Don’t stuff it down too far. Don’t see it as a sign of your own failure. Nurture it with stories. Feed it with the roses your mother cuts from your father’s garden and places in a jam jar on the kitchen table. Enjoy the Texas wildflowers in March, those fields of red and blue. They are every bit as beautiful as Mary’s secret garden, though they need no care from you.
One day you will understand why you read that book so many times, and you will give thanks for the ground beneath your grownup feet.
You will understand that this is no ordinary ground. It is ground prepared for you–prepared for your spade and your watering can, your dreams and your desires–years before you knew it would be given to you.
And when the daffodils you planted bloom by the hundreds you will sing a song of praise to the God who calls forth music from yellow-petaled trumpets.
Christmas is many things, but convenient isn’t one of them.
Especially if you are the one who bakes the traditional
cookies, the it-wouldn’t-be-Christmas-without-them-mom! cookies, while running
the bedding for the guest room through the laundry, while keeping an eye on a
child’s letter writing to Santa, while affixing a gift tag to the wrapped book
another child will take to the fourth-grade holiday party, the same holiday
party for which you remembered to buy the book but have only just now realized
you forgot to buy the apple cider.
“But, Mom, I don’t want to bring apple cider. I want to
bring Shirley Temples! Can you buy the stuff for Shirley Temples? And can you
come to my party and make them?”
A feast is a beautiful thing, but a feast is no convenient thing.
It is a regular thing, however.
Every twelve months here it is again, reminding us of things we might otherwise forget:
Children like peppermint candy canes and gingerbread cookie men more in theory than practice.
The Christmas story is as concerned with what happened, one day, long ago, as it is with what will happen, one day. Perhaps soon?
Christ has died.
Christ has risen.
Christ will come
Childhood is brief, time is swift, and it will always feel like we are putting up the twinkle lights five minutes after we last took them down. Despite how we sometimes feel on a lazy summer afternoon, we are not drifting in a sea of endless time.
We are waiting. Eyes wide open. We are hoping. Hearts cracked open.
We are waiting and we are hoping for the return of our king.
And hope like that is no convenient thing.
Hope like that is an earthquake.
… the hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here.Romans 13: 11, 12
I first wrote these words a few Octobers ago. Since then, I’ve written a memoir embroidered with stories of trees. That book will come out in March–just in time for green spring–but it seems I’ve been paying attention to the trees for a long while.
Autumn is announced by the seedling trees. The baby trees. They are the first to abandon their green in favor of orange or red or yellow.
Driving these country roads, they are like lit matches. Small, flickering flames against the general greens and faded browns of early autumn.
They are children embracing the arrival of something new. They wear their faith like Joseph’s multi-colored coat, and we cannot look away.
Soon, even the staid elders will shake off their summer sleep.
Until they blaze.
Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3)
I observed the brilliant, baby trees, and I immediately thought of Jesus’s words. I imagined I could write out the connection. That I could find some moral in what I had seen.
But trees are living things. They are not convenient object lessons.
Maybe they are parables. Easy to decode but almost impossible to comprehend. Truth so tall and deep, it avoids our grasp, seeking instead the deep well of our hearts.
I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world. (Matthew 13:34)
Yesterday, I saw a strange sight. Walking to shut up the chickens for the night, I saw a line of geese heading southeast. They were black silhouettes against the slate gray backdrop of the sky.
I stood perfectly still watching them, captured by some mystery that wasn’t immediately apparent. Then it came to me in two parts.
First, the geese traveled in a single diagonal line, but there was only emptiness where the other half of the V should have been. Was this a picture of loss and grief? Or only the notice of job vacancies in the sky?
Second, they were quiet. I could hear nothing. No flap of wings, no honking calls.
Be silent, all flesh, before the Lord, for he has roused himself from his holy dwelling. (Zechariah 2:13)
I read my Bible, and I watch the trees. I stop to consider the birds. I am learning to collect hidden things. To store them up for the winter day of my need.
And on that day I will know exactly what it means to be a young tree wearing a blaze of color.
I will understand just how much depends upon chasing the far horizon in complete silence.
Recently, I found myself digging around in the archives of this blog. I was looking for something particular – I no longer remember what – but I stumbled on this post from last December. I wrote it for Solstice, the longest night of the year. It would be one of the last posts I would write before Shawn’s death in January.
I have lately been remembering last year’s Christmas celebration. In my memory, those were the last innocent, happy days. Days when we had not yet known sorrow. Days when we had not yet seen the almost unbearable glory of God.
I was shocked to reread this post and realize I was grieving last December, too. Smaller sorrows, perhaps, but sorrows still. The words I wrote last December do not simply remain true; they are more true.
Strangely, they are also giving me more hope. Through some trick of faulty memory, I had placed the happy days in the past. I had forgotten that the greatest happiness – the most complete joy – is still ahead of us. We have not yet arrived.
But we are nearer. And every door of grief and suffering through which we pass brings us nearer still.
The best days may be yet to come, but in December I remember how much gladness is ours today. This was true for me last December. This is still true today.
Each December I think it will be different. This will be the year I shake my winter melancholy. This will be the year my delight grows day by day. These are days of ornaments and sugar cookies and twinkling lights. Aren’t they supposed to be happy?
But this year is much like every other year. The ornaments shatter, the cookies crumble, and those new LED bulbs cast a cold-hearted glow.
More than ten years ago, I spent a few December days watching my friend’s little girl. My friend was in the hospital laboring to deliver a baby boy whose heart had already stopped beating. Over the weekend, I took care of another little girl who has no idea her parent’s hearts are broken.
All weekend, in the background, Over the Rhine was singing, “If we make it through December we’ll be fine.”
This was going to be the year I would look on the bright side, but I have just about accepted that there is no bright side in December. Only darkness and the pin-prick lights on the Christmas tree, and tonight is the longest night.
At one in the morning on the fourth Sunday of Advent, my friend’s little girl threw up. When I found her, she was crying, and her beautiful curly hair was smeared with vomit. While I bathed her and toweled her dry, I thought two things: Why is this happening tonight? and Thank you, Jesus, that I can do this for my friend.
This is what we do in December. We bake sugar cookies, and we scrub vomit from the sheets. We cry for our friends and we cry for ourselves, and we hand out bars of chocolate tied with red and green bows. We make toasts to the new year, and we wonder how we’ll ever survive another one.
We pray come, Lord Jesus, come, and we remember that he already has and that he’s seen it all before. The vomit and the death. The good food and the hunger. The love and the loss.
I don’t know if I’m angry, or tired, or simply sad, but I will keep baking cookies. I will continue hanging ornaments, and I will make my husband climb up on the barn roof to secure a lighted star.
Because somehow despite it all (or because of it?) I still believe that there is a God up there in heaven who has made us this promise:
“I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow” (Jeremiah 31:13).
We live somewhere between the promise and its ultimate fulfillment. It is a land where tears drop onto festive wrapping paper. A place dusted with cookie crumbs and peppermints. It is empty stockings hung by the fire, and it is our hope, perhaps a little shaky and unsure, that one day we will wake and those stockings will be full.
But it isn’t only a one-day hope. Perhaps if we make it through December we will be fine, but I don’t want to be fine. I want more than that. I want better than that.
I want gladness.
Gladness like the taste of sugar cookies and candy canes and the cinnamon rolls I make every Christmas morning.
Gladness like the face of a child when snow finally does fall.
Gladness like every bright, sweet gift that comes to us only in December.