I sat in my hairdresser’s chair this morning feeling too worn out for small talk. Summer days at home with four children will do that.
She asked about my trip to Tuscany: “Did you bring home ideas for your writing?”
“No,” I said.
“Well, maybe,” I added.
What did I bring home from this spiritual retreat for writers?
Two bottles of olive oil. A duty-free bottle of lemoncello. Hard candies in pretty little boxes for the kids.
Also, a retreat journal full of prayers, epiphanies, and meaningful quotations from the likes of Henri Nouwen.
Your future depends on how you choose to remember your past. – Henri J.M. Nouwen
How do I remember my time in the Tuscan countryside of Italy? How do I remember those days lived in community, in a garden, around a table, surrounded by beauty?
I remember rest.
Simple rest. A total focus on the here and the now and the people right at my elbow.
The kind of rest I believe is available to those walking the Jesus way.
The kind of rest I rarely, if ever, manage to enter on my ordinary day to day.
What is rest? What is its substance?
It feels like being held. It feels like the absence of fear. It feels like no anxiety for tomorrow and a quiet acceptance of yesterday.
It feels like stillness.
It feels like freedom.
It is a spacious place.
I am a gardener who has never yet found rest in my own garden. Who can rest when mosquitos are biting, weeds are waving, and overgrown cucumbers are beginning to rot on the vine?
Who can rest when children are growing, my cellphone is dinging, and the cucumbers I meant to make into pickles are beginning to rot in the fridge?
I found rest in a garden in Tuscany because that garden wasn’t mine. It wasn’t my responsibility. Someone else made that place, and I had only to enjoy it.
If rest is a place made for us, where is the door?
In Tuscany, rest was a stone bench beneath sheltering leaves, a kind of green grotto within an enormous shrub.
Our word grotto is related to the Greek for hidden place, the same Greek that gave us our word crypt. That should not surprise us. “Blessed are the dead,” we read in Revelation, “they will rest from their labor.” In this life we sometimes glimpse the ultimate rest, but ours is only a glimpse, a momentary vision, for “there remains … a Sabbath-rest for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9).
Man-made grottos, whether green and growing or stony and still, are often markers of gratitude: gratitude for some miraculous encounter or some answered prayer. Grottos shape how we remember the past. They tell us God is near. They say all shall be well. They hint at a reality we have yet to enter.
My own garden has no grotto, but, since returning from Tuscany, I have discovered it is possible to shelter within gratitude, as if leaf by leaf or stone by stone, I can be transported, not leaving my ordinary everyday but somehow sinking, a little more deeply, within it.
When fear or worry invade, I say Thank you for this and thank you for that and I find that the list goes on and on.
Until the list becomes a door.
My children returned to school this week.
Monday morning I took their photograph on the front steps and wondered if anything in creation grows and changes faster than a child. Of course, I know the answer is yes, many things.
The dahlias in my flower garden need only one summer to grow from potato-like tuber to five feet of sunset color. Strange mushrooms beside the wood pile require a scant few hours of darkness. The baby ducks my sisters gave me as a birthday gift in late June now wander the yard with a heavy, side-to-side waddle and consume twice as much food one week as the week before.
Right now, the whole world feels shot through with urgency. Zinnias are on a mission to bloom and dry and drop their dusty seeds. The American political landscape has become so tumultuous I hold my morning paper at arm’s length, nervous about what new controversy may have erupted overnight. A hurricane parked itself on the landscape of my childhood and young adulthood, and if I had had a thousand boats I would not have been able to rescue every person I know by name who was watching floodwaters rise.
I can’t keep up. I can’t keep my grip. Not on the children. Or the issues. Not even on the tomatoes growing in my garden. Too many drop to the ground and rot before I can bring them inside. A few more turn to puddles on my countertop before my husband, pizza-maker extraordinaire, can cook them into sauce. But what is a tomato puddle compared with a one-in-five hundred-year flood?
Who has time for small things and slow things when it feels as if the world is spinning faster than ever before?
A world hurtling from grief to grief needs speed and rescue boats. But I have only the slow work of placing one word upon another.
No boats. Only books.
I am writing another book.
In this story, this imagery, and this message, I feel as if I have tapped into floodwaters, and I am so grateful to the folks at Zondervan for partnering with me to shape these waters into something beautiful and meaningful.
But the protracted and plodding work of writing and publishing has left me feeling as if I’ve stepped out of a fast-moving river in order to bury my head in a backwater eddy. Every day, I must remind myself how much words matter.
Speed has a way of devaluing our language. In a crisis, we grab the first word close at hand. We don’t trouble ourselves over nuance or precision.
This is unsustainable, and if we don’t resist, we can undermine our true identity and our purpose in the world.
Who are we? We are those who “have tasted the goodness of the word of God” (Hebrews 6:5).
But too many of us are still hungry. Too many of us have forgotten we were ever invited to feast.
I suppose even rescue boats require time to build. Compared with dahlias and ducklings, boats and books need much more than a single summer. The helpers and rescuers may leap into action, but they do so on boats that have been built and maintained with care. They do so according to plans that have been prepared and practiced over decades.
Rescue is also a kind of discipline.
The world is saved through slow work (raising babies, restoring buildings, writing books). The world is saved through the quick and ephemeral (preaching sermons, delivering water). There is urgency, but it is not for every one of us on every single day.
The world is always spinning, always moving, shifting, and changing. Right now I feel the curl and curve of it beneath my feet, and, occasionally, I stumble.
But for the next few months, I will go on stumbling back to this chair and back to this overcrowded desk. I will do this because I believe when Jesus said “my words will never pass away,” he invited each one of us to root our words (our conversations, our social media posts, our books) in the Word. The same Word through whom all things were made and all things are being newly made.
See! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
Even now our language, full of grace and seasoned with salt, is being swept up to play its part in a new creation.
A garden, unlike a house, is never still. It is not an object but a moment. To observe a garden, one must catch it like a butterfly in a net (but please do let it go again. Beauty cannot be preserved or it ceases to be itself).
When I give someone a tour of the gardens here at Maplehurst, I catch myself crying, “Oh, if only you had seen the daffodils that bloomed last week.” I am like a mother pouring over baby photos while the child who was that baby tugs at my hand, begging me to play another round of Candyland.
My heart inclines towards nostalgia, and I am easily tangled in the past, but today’s garden is only for today. I must pay attention or I’ll miss it, and there are no encores, no second chances.
Why keep a garden? Why grow flowers? The arguments against it are persuasive. A garden will keep you tethered because to plant something is to make a promise: I will clear the weeds from around you, I will bring you water when the sky turns dry. I will not walk away.
But there are worse things than being kept at home because someone there needs us. The word “homebound” alludes to difficult and heartbreaking realities, but it also speaks of the way home can hold us and keep us steady. And to live as one “bound for home” is to live as a pilgrim sure of the welcome that waits for us.
Right now this garden flows as swiftly as a swollen river. By mid-summer, its movement will have slowed to a trickle, though it never does stop.
The gift of a garden is that it brings movement and change to the still point that is our home.
In spring, I lift my eyes from washing dishes, feeding children, folding laundry, and all those tasks that keep me tied, through love and obligation, to this place. I lift them toward the open window, and I say,
Look! The world is new again.
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.
Elizabeth and I exchanged a few “homebound” letters over Lent. The nature of a letter is to communicate over a distance, but the season of Lent introduced other distances – there was the space between winter and spring, the break between longing and fulfillment, and the chasm, so like a tomb, between death and new life. But what is Lent, after all, but a kind of long homecoming? It is a practice of return and a way of erasing distance.
Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them (Psalm 126:6).
For Elizabeth and I, Easter has meant trading the distance of letter writing for the intimacy of a visit, first with a home tour and today with a tour of the garden.
Here is our invitation to Elizabeth’s garden at Mersea.
My children have spent the past week with their grandparents. Untethered from their needs, I spent the week living in my head.
Daydreams, interior monologues, thoughts, prayers, and wishes: the inner world is my favorite landscape.
It is quiet there, and I am all alone.
I set several overly-ambitious writing goals for the week. I also determined to catch up on every gardening chore and organize the house from top to bottom. In 90-degree heat.
It was a plan guaranteed to ensure that by the time my children returned, I would feel like a miserable failure who had squandered the most precious days that ever were.
The gardening chores have at least forced me to temporarily abandon my inner world. Daydreams evaporate very quickly when one is sweating, swatting mosquitoes, and cursing one’s inability to properly stake a sprawling cherry tomato plant.
Also, there are flowers. I am finding this summer that I do not think very much in the flower garden. There is something about the overpowering scent of oriental lilies that empties my head of everything else. Only a few days in to my full immersion in the life of the mind, I decided that it is a good thing to take a break from oneself. My inner world, as much as I love it, can be exhausting.
I do not think I would like to live there full-time.
Something else happened while the children were away: I turned on the car radio. I am not sure why I so rarely do that. Perhaps it is the demands from my little companions in travel for this music but not that. Perhaps it is my own need to control the tunes that tickle their ears.
I hopped in the car for the first time in days only because a few library books were due and our first bag of peaches was ready at the orchard where we participate in a fruit-share CSA. I do not think that anything less than library books and peaches could have convinced me to leave the quiet oasis of my child-free house.
Left to my own devices like that, I found myself punching the AM/FM knob. I had to take my eyes off the road for quite a dangerous stretch before my fingers found a tiny button labeled “seek.”
I don’t know what I was seeking, but a familiar voice filled the car. It was a childlike voice and instantly recognizable to me. I was a little girl in the early 80s, and the voice of Cyndi Lauper will always recall that one memorable sleepover when my best friend Michelle and I decided to find out how many times in a row it was possible to view that classic 80s film Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. I think we watched it two-and-a-half times through before Michelle fell asleep.
In April, in Texas, the very first person who greeted me when we arrived at the cemetery for Shawn’s burial was Michelle’s mom.
I was holding two children by the hands and feeling a bit dazed by the heat and the crowd and the terrible finality of a flag-draped coffin. I was searching for a path through the people who had gathered around a small tent and a few rows of folding chairs, when she suddenly appeared beside me and put her hand on my arm. I had not seen her in years, but I had no trouble recognizing the woman who placed our after-school snacks with such care on those tv trays, the same woman who never complained when Michelle and I brought home sticky gumballs we had spit out and saved from the gumball ice-cream cones we purchased at the mall.
I sort of love Cyndi Lauper’s strange voice. She always sounds a bit like a little girl, and my best friend Michelle will always be, for me, the little girl I loved best. I wish I could call her up and tell her that, but Michelle died in a car accident not long after I graduated from high school.
There’s a kind of epiphany that only comes when the music is turned up loud and you are all alone in the car. It’s a strange mix of sadness, joy, and gratitude.
Half my mind was singing Time After Time and the other half was recognizing what a privilege it is to sweat in my garden and run dirty, weed-stained fingers through hair that is beginning to gray. What a privilege it is to feel overwhelmed by four children, to bicker and then make up with the same man for twenty years. How glad I am for this life of interruption and inconvenience and heartache.
It’s a good thing to stop on a too-hot summer day and remember and cry for those who left us too soon.
We are following fast on their heels, but meanwhile, there are flowers to grow and meals to prepare and stories to tell. And there are songs to sing.
Loudly and with the windows rolled down.
“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.
Praise be to God for roses.
Praise be to God for thorns.
After Shawn’s accident in mid-January, I hardly read a thing. I would sometimes pick up a book, but I couldn’t quiet my mind enough to read it. Life was too heavy, and it wasn’t possible to slow down without feeling the weight of it all. If I sat still in a chair for five minutes, I would feel that weight settle until my arms would lower and I had set my book aside.
Since we returned from the burial in Texas, I’ve been reading almost constantly. I am weary in my bones, tired out by grief and small talk. Temporarily at least, it is a relief to let myself fall, forgetfully, into the world of a book.
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout is simple yet searing, a short novel that consists almost entirely of one young woman’s reminiscences and conversations while recovering from an illness in the hospital. For so many reasons, this is my literary ideal. I read the entire thing in awe that Strout could shape the most ordinary words and experiences into something so powerful. Lucy Barton’s voice will be in my head for a long while.
I did not choose to read Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World: A Memoir because of our experiences as a family during the past few months. I’m fairly certain I put a library hold on the title without remembering the subject, and it was delivered to my local library branch a few weeks ago.
Elizabeth Alexander is a well known poet (I remember appreciating the poem she wrote for the occasion of President Obama’s first inauguration), and this is a memoir about her marriage, her husband’s unexpected death, and the first year of life without him.
Honestly, it’s the kind of book I tend to avoid (too sad!), and there has certainly been no forgetfulness while reading it. Yet, I am so glad it found it’s way to me now. It’s as much about marriage as it is about loss, and Alexander’s observations and descriptions of both are exquisite. There is a great deal of joy in this book: the joy of cooking and eating, of making art, of gardening, and the joy of witnessing your children’s growth. Alexander is open about not being a religious person, and yet her poetic sensibility and her faith in the truthfulness of poetic logic gives this honest book a spiritual weightiness that I appreciated very much.
Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson couldn’t be more different. This hilarious domestic memoir (those savages are Jackson’s four children) is from the queen of the creepy tale. You’ve probably read her famous short story The Lottery. Her books We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House are wonderful, spooky classics.
Life Among the Savages, published in 1953, describes another world (pregnant mothers who are never far from their cigarettes and children who play cowboys and Indians with television swagger), but it is hilarious precisely because it describes so well the day to day insanity of life with small children.
My strongest feeling while reading this book was gratitude. Somehow, Jackson’s deadpan delivery and knack for dialogue reminded me how sweet this phase of life can be. Yes, our houses are a mess and children possess an illogic that cannot be reasoned with, but, this book seems to say, isn’t it wonderful?
In my own book news, you can listen to an interview I recently gave about Roots and Sky. Here is my conversation with Cara Strickland for Off the Page. We talk about writing, home, seasons, liturgy, and family.
And, you are all invited to join the Summer Book Club at Grace Table. This summer’s pick is Roots and Sky, and the conversation takes place in June. Sign up today!
Now tell me: which books are saving your life lately?