I grew up in Texas. In that place, it is possible to be surprised by spring. A river of bluebonnets might bubble up overnight. A heatwave might suddenly stake its claim on a handful of early February days.
Here, among rolling Pennsylvania hills, spring is never a surprise.
We wait so long for spring, and its coming is so slow, that no change appears without being watched from a great distance and for a long while. The view from my office window today is as brown and bleak as ever, but for days, weeks, even, I have watched the buds on the forsythia swell.
The snowdrops in the lawn do tend to pop up without warning, but no sooner have I noticed them than my two-year-old daughter has flattened the whole patch with one pink, rubber boot.
Observing a northern spring, I realize how small a great, new beginning can be. I dream of spring all winter, but the dream comes true only in fits and starts. In much waiting and a great deal of work with shovels, rakes, and pruners.
I once dreamed of becoming a mother, but the dream was realized in sleepless nights and temper tantrums (hers and mine).
I once dreamed of a farmhouse home, and the dream came true as we cleared hornet nests from behind every window shutter and poison ivy from every fence and tree.
I once dreamed of becoming a writer, and that dream came true through the slow, daily accumulation of words.
But dreams are like spring.
There will always be some moment of joyful recognition. Some moment when the dream drifts down around you. Light, like dandelion fluff, but real enough to see and touch.
Perhaps when the baby says I love you. When a friend says your home is so peaceful. Or, maybe, when you read the proposed back-cover copy for your book and burst into tears. Because, for the first time, the book with your name on it sounds, even to you, like a good book. Like the kind of book you would love.
It is like the moment when the magnolia opens its first pink blooms. It won’t matter then that I’ve been studying those gray buds all winter. It won’t matter that I noticed the first narrow edge of pink weeks ago.
I have lived enough springs to know that I will always greet that moment with astonishment.
Our first serious snowfall arrived the day before Thanksgiving.
The day began with rain. I left the house early to meet a friend for coffee and prayer, and the rain was already running in rivers. They said the rain would turn to snow mid-morning, yet that is a miracle I am always reluctant to believe without seeing. They were right. At ten in the morning, as I sat writing in one of the third-floor attic bedrooms, the rain turned quietly to snow.
Within minutes the golden-brown leaves still piled on our lawn were dusted with snow. Within an hour, the whole world had changed. Autumn had disappeared, buried beneath a new, wintry world.
My children had an early release from school for the holiday. I was standing at the parlor window, watching for them to come walking the long length of our driveway, when I heard it. A rumble. Like a heavy truck. But the rumble grew and cracked and broke into pieces, and I recognized it for what it was.
Thunder. A long, rolling river of thunder.
Every year since I began writing this website, I have blogged daily during Advent. During the rest of the year, I struggle to post regularly once each week. But those Advent seasons of daily writing have been my favorite seasons. The intensity of those days, the witnessing and the telling, have changed me. They have also changed my life.
I began this discipline of daily Advent blogging because I was desperate. Desperate for something new and good in my life. Desperate for more. I ached and yearned and waited, and I wrote about it. I tried to anchor my own story in The Story. That January I found out I was pregnant. I’d had no idea what I was aching for, but Elsa Spring is, as her name suggests, new and good and as beautiful as a long-anticipated spring.
The second year I was weighed down by a gray post-partum fog. I was sure I had nothing to say. But God showed himself and gave me words. And in January the fog was finally rolled back. I was myself again. I knew happiness again.
The third year, I was sure I couldn’t do it. I had not had time to pre-plan a single post. I kept my eyes wide open, and I scratched out a few words each night. And God showed up. I woke every day feeling empty, and I went to bed every night having been given the story for that day.
In January, my long, vague dream of writing a book crystalized unexpectedly. Just after Epiphany, a book idea dropped, fully formed, into my head. And, in another year, that book will show up in bookstores.
You would be right if you guessed that I approach Advent with not a small amount of fear and trembling.
Advent is a journey. And it changes us. It is a season of quiet beauty and gentle expectation, but it can roll over our lives like thunder. Sit. Watch. Wait. There is no telling what you might see.
Two thousand years ago, the whole world changed. And it goes on changing. There is always, always something new.
This year, I am deep in words for my book. For the first time, I have had to admit that I cannot blog every day of Advent. But I have not wanted to give it up. Instead, I have asked a few of my writer friends to join me here. I’ll be sharing their Advent reflections with you this season. I’ll also be showing up with Saturday book recommendations and a special food-themed Christmas giveaway.
And I pray, however you observe Advent, that it will be as beautiful as the first snowfall of the season. I pray that it will rock the earth beneath your feet like thunder.
Today, I am not giving you a peek at the bookshelves lining the walls of this old farmhouse.
Instead, I am giving you a peek at what you’ll find spilling out of baskets and boxes. What you’ll find stacked beside my bed and by my armchair near the fireplace. I’m showing you my pile of dreams. My paper stack of wishes.
I am recommending plant and seed catalogs.
Why now? Why now as I put my vegetable garden to bed and watch for the first hard freeze?
Because gardens are born in winter. And this is the perfect time to sign up for at least a few (free) catalogs. They’ll be the guides to your dreams come December.
A garden should make you feel you’ve entered privileged space – a place not just set apart but reverberant – and it seems to me that, to achieve this, the gardener must put some kind of twist on the existing landscape, turn its prose into something nearer poetry. – Michael Pollan
The vegetable and flower seed catalog from Seed Savers Exchange is always a glossy, full-color treasure trove. This one is perfect for winter browsing, almost as good as a collection of short stories. You’ll read about the real “Grandpa Ott” behind “Grandpa Ott’s Morning Glories,” and the fascinating history of the “Moon and Stars” watermelon. Even better, by ordering heirloom seeds from the exchange you are also supporting the biodiversity of our planet.
The supermarket produce shelf offers a tiny slice – not even that, perhaps a pin drop – of the variety of creation. If a blight shows up this year favoring the (tasteless) grocery-story tomato, it will be the home-gardening seed savers and networks like Seed Savers Exchange who save tomatoes for future generations.
I don’t save many of my own seeds beyond a few dried flower heads. I’ve listed that activity under things I’ll do when I no longer have children underfoot. Until then, I do my part by ordering from Seed Savers.
Gardening is akin to writing stories. No experience could have taught me more about grief or flowers, about achieving survival by going, your fingers in the ground, the limit of physical exhaustion. – Eudora Welty
If you ever buy bulbs through the mail, especially daffodils and tulips, your mailbox will be flooded with catalogs claiming direct links to Dutch tulip fields. They will have phrases like “fine purveyors” on their covers. Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, a family operation based in Virginia, is pretty much the opposite of that. And I love them.
Brent and Becky (yes, they are real people) offer excellent service, quality bulbs, and fair prices. You can buy all the classic varieties, and you can find homegrown varieties they have named for a favorite relative or friend. Their catalog is full of advice and inspiration, and you can enjoy it at least twice a year. They send out separate catalogs for spring and fall-planted bulbs.
I buy my daffodil and tulips bulbs here every year. Last year I filled a bed with their lily bulbs. And I’ll soon be planting a few of their purple alliums.
I am intrigued by writers who garden and gardeners who write. The pen and the trowel are not interchangeable, but seem often linked. – Marta McDowell
The Antique Rose Emporium in Independence, Texas is a magical place. I grew up visiting it with my father, a farmer-turned-gardener, yet I somehow never dreamed of growing roses myself. Until, I came to Maplehurst.
Our little corner of Pennsylvania was once well-known for the roses Quaker farmers grew here for city markets. That heritage is still evident in street names and in long memories. Last year, it seemed important to me to bring roses back to Maplehurst. Of course, now I’m hooked.
I used to hear “antique roses” and imagine fussy, hard-to-please plants. If caring for antique furniture was more complicated than dusting a piece from IKEA, then surely plants were the same. Strangely, the opposite is true. If you are looking for a rose that is easy to grow, less susceptible to diseases and insects, and (bonus!) highly scented, then it is an antique rose that you want.
You can also find them described as “Old Garden Roses,” and the catalog from the Antique Rose Emporium is one of the best ways to learn about these wonderful plants. Thanks to this catalog and other books published by its founder, I have gorgeous, cabbage-y pink roses still blooming in my garden today. In the middle of October. Yes, you can call me a fan.
Also, I think it very important to support any business with “emporium” in its name. Just a personal pledge of mine.
I love my garden, and I love working in it. To potter with green, growing things, watching each day to see the dear, new sprouts come up, is like taking a hand in creation, I think. Just now my garden is like faith – the substance of things hoped for. – L.M. Montgomery, Anne’s House of Dreams
I grew dahlias for the first time this year, and I am hooked. My gardens all look a bit shabby by October, but the flower bed across from our front door has exploded with beautiful, bouncy, mop-headed dahlias. You can find a million pictures (approximately) of my dahlias on instagram. Like this one. And this one. I can’t seem to stop taking their pictures.
I’ve done little dahlia comparison shopping, but Swan Island Dahlias was recommended to me, and I will be ordering from them again. Their catalog is beautiful and extensive, and every one of the tubers they sent grew and thrived. My favorite bit? They stamp each tuber with the name of the variety. This made it easy to remember what I was planting and where.
Dahlias always intimidated me because I knew they weren’t cold-hardy. The thought of planting something only to dig it up again in the fall seemed ridiculous. Why would I do that? Well, now I know exactly why. (Also, here’s a tip. If you aren’t sure you can handle that amount of effort: plant them anyway. No one will ever know if you just leave them in the ground. And if it’s a mild winter? They may just come blooming back again.)
However many years she lived, Mary always felt that “she should never forget that first morning when her garden began to grow.” – Frances Hodgson Burnett
Now I’d love to know, do any of you garden? What are your favorite sources? Please share them in the comments!
“… unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”
It is the dream-come-true moment that lodges itself in our memories.
The day the baby was born. Or the day you wore the cap and gown. Or the day you moved in.
It isn’t that you’ve forgotten. It is only that time does heal and dreams-come-true are complicated. They ask so much of you. When you are changing diapers in the night or ripping out weeds for a new garden you do not have much energy to spare for looking back.
Which may be why I have written so much about dreams-come-true and so little of letting them die.
Because no dream lives that has not yet died.
Some call this surrender. They describe it as letting go. Giving back to God. Release.
I prefer to call it planting.
First there is the dream. It seems to have come at once from somewhere deep within and somewhere so far beyond yourself that the only explanation is divine. God has whispered, and your eyes are now open.
That is the seed.
Then comes the next day. Which turns out to be not all that different from the day before. The dream appeared to be so real, so startling and immediate, but life seems not to have noticed. Life is much the same as ever.
We each have our own way of living these days. Some of us wrestle and rage. We cry and we grip and we will not let go until, utterly spent, we drop the seed and we bury it.
Others of us begin to doubt almost immediately. I can live without this, we say. Maybe it was never meant to be, we tell ourselves.
This is how dreams die. How they are buried in dark dirt.
This is how we live with dry bones.
Waking up is difficult. Resurrection, even of the figurative sort, can be painful.
T.S. Eliot warned us:
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
It is painful to dream again. To risk a broken heart. To walk through a valley of dry bones and say I believe.
But, oh friends, I am convinced. It is the only way to live.
I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. … Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.
On Monday, an envelope stuffed with papers arrived in my mailbox. I knew it was coming, but I still caught my breath when I saw it there.
It sat on the kitchen table while we gathered groceries and medications and swimsuits. School begins on Monday, but we were squeezing in one small family vacation before calling summer quits.
Late at night, with our bags packed and our kids in their beds, I read the papers. I signed the papers. There was no time to visit the post office, so I packed the papers with everything else the next morning.
We drove north toward Ithaca, New York. The Finger Lakes, they call them. It’s a storybook landscape of mountains and water and red Dutch-style barns. The kind of landscape I found only in books when I was a child growing up in Texas.
Just the right landscape for a dream-come-true.
Now that I’ve left those papers at a post office in Ithaca I can tell you this:
Dry bones do live and this autumn and winter I’ll be writing a book.
I’ll be writing a book for Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group.
This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. … Then you will know that I am the Lord.
And I pray, Let it be to me according to your word.
Let it be, let it be, let it be.
I’ve heard it said that one’s priorities are best observed through the lens of a checkbook register (or credit card statement or budget spreadsheet). Where your money goes, there goes your heart.
I don’t actually speak the language of priorities or goals or budgets (and the spreadsheets they tend to associate with), but I know just a bit about dreams. I know you’ll see my dreams most clearly on my bookshelves.
There are dreams discarded (Marxism and Literature or Silver Poets of the Sixteenth Century) and dreams realized (Taking Charge of Your Fertility). There are dreams ongoing (Homemade Living: Canning & Preserving with Ashley English) and dreams I’m content only to dream (The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland).
Lining up one’s deepest desires for anyone to see (and open and browse and borrow), is a practice with the potential for great embarrassment. I can remember the moment with a graduate school friend cast a quizzical eye over my small collection of children’s books. True, I had no children at the time, but I am currently purchasing books with grandchildren in mind so is it any wonder I was buying children’s books before I had children of my own?
I didn’t have large number of book-browsing friends during our two years in Florida, but, if I had, they would have wondered about the following titles. You see, I was living a typical suburban life in a typical suburban split-level, but I had cast my book-buying dollars out upon the waters and I prayed they’d bring me bread.
I prayed they’d bring me home.
(Find all my book recommendations here as well as more information about my use of affiliate links.)
Our Florida house was about fifteen years old and in good condition, but I bought this book for my husband on his birthday: Renovating Old Houses: Bringing New Life to Vintage Homes (For Pros By Pros) by George Nash. We had no idea when we would be leaving Florida or where we’d go once we did, but this book said everything about our hopes and dreams.
If you live in an old house or want to learn more about old houses, this is your fascinating, informative, go-to guide. Browse it and dream (also, if you are not sure if an old house is for you, reading this book can be quite clarifying. Because, oh my word, so much can go wrong and the fix is rarely simple).
While Jonathan read about repairing plaster and “elegant alternatives to tearing into walls,” I was reading this: The Backyard Homestead: Produce all the food you need on just a quarter acre! by Carleen Madigan.
Now, I can tell you right now, I will never produce all the food I need even on my (nearly) five acres. I am just not that industrious. Also, I like to read far too much. However, this books is fun, inspiring, and (almost) makes me believe that I could. If I really wanted to. Currently, I’m reading the chapters on rabbits and ducks, so … stay tuned. (Also – to clarify – I have no plans to eat my own rabbits or ducks. The rabbits would be to fertilize the garden, and the ducks would be … well, to look cute on a pond, I suppose.)
Lastly, this is the book I read and loved before I even knew it was a book about my dream. Sometimes, we read to discover our dreams.
Merry Hall (Beverley Nichols Trilogy Book 1) by Beverley Nichols is a farcical, funny, exaggerated romp of a memoir from 1951. In it, Nichols describes the restoration of an English Georgian house and garden. This is a book with a wicked sense of humor and a golden heart. I read it regularly.
So I had to buy a house in the country. Buy, not rent. It is ridiculous to rent things if you are a gardener; it fidgets you. Even a very long lease is upsetting. I once owned a house with a 999 years lease, and it gave me an unbearable sense of being a sort of week-end guest; it hardly seemed worth while planting the hyacinths.
You were made for the impossible thing.
You were made for the goal you cannot conceivably achieve. You were made for the task you are ill-equipped to manage. The high bar you can never reach.
You were made for the thing that terrifies you the most. The thing those others can do but never you.
You were made for the dream too good even to dream.
Some of you know this. You have already seen that the impossible thing slowly, gradually becomes more than just an impossible thing. It becomes a prayer. In other words, impossibility is shot through with cruel desire. You hardly know how it happens, but somehow you begin to want this impossible thing.
Until, one day (but truly it is never one day; it is always slowly over many days) the prayer is answered. The promise inherent in prayer is fulfilled. And the impossible thing becomes a gift, given freely.
Writing is my impossible thing. It is the dream I buried in a million books. Books I was convinced I could never write.
My friend Cara Strickland, a writer of delicious details, sent a few questions my way. They are questions meant for writers, but I’ve been considering them with all our many impossible dreams in mind.
I am working on noticing.
The more I notice, the more convinced I become that our lives, and the world in which we live them, are not the chaotic, meaningless jumbles they often appear to be.
When I notice the connections among a few dots, I write out those connections here on this blog. I try to do this once per week, but dots do not always obey our commands (pleas, bribes, etc.) to reveal their associations.
But I keep showing up and, sometimes, I am rewarded.
Slowly (very slowly), I am also writing out the connections among some bigger dots. Dots like homesickness and desire and kingdom come. I am gathering up these bits in a file called “My Book.” We shall see whether the title of this computer file proves itself prophetic.
- How does your work differ from others of its genre?
One of my greatest fears is that it does not. That, indeed, there is nothing new under the sun. But I find in the Psalms a command that has also become my prayer: “sing to the Lord a new song.”
I think this is why we are here on this planet. To sing to our God a new song. But, like most commands we find in the Bible, it is impossible. It asks too much. Every word I write rings in my ears like an echo of some other, better writer.
But I am learning to stand in the river that is the source of every new thing. I am learning to recognize the new when it bubbles up like a spring. New words, new stories, new beauties, new mercies. New is the keyword of the kingdom of God, and we are Christ’s own. We hold the keys to the kingdom.
- Why do you write what you do?
I write because the world holds so much beauty my heart would break if I couldn’t pause and gather some of it up.
I write because there is a river, and it has filled me with good news. Somehow I, the quiet one, the cautious one, want only to “go up on a high mountain” and shout “Here is your God!” (Isaiah 40:9).
- How does your writing process work?
It works like this: I stand near a sink overflowing with dirty dishes, a paper calendar in hand. I carve out quiet time. This is exhausting, difficult work. My knife is never sharp enough. And then, typically, I must let go of the time I have so carefully cut away. The baby does not nap, or the preschooler will not fulfill the “quiet” portion of his afternoon quiet-time obligation, or school is canceled, or I get sick, and on and on it goes.
Until, while wiping the counters or raking leaves or changing a diaper, I am visited by an image. Maybe two. The beginnings of a story.
My friend Laura Lynn Brown sings beautiful songs. She sings with words (you can find her award-winning essay “Fifty Things About My Mother” at Slate). She sings with paintbrush and pencil. She sings with an Irish flute. I’m passing the baton of these questions on to her. Look for her own thoughts on writing and the writing process at her website in the coming weeks.
Now tell me. How do you sing your own new song?
“Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.”