It is called the Golden Hour or, sometimes, the Magic Hour. Photographers and filmmakers revere it.
It rarely, if ever, lasts an hour. Usually it is less, though in the far north in deep winter, it might last all day. It is that period just after sunrise, or, more usually, just before sunset when the light is warm and soft and shadows are long and gentle.
During our winters, golden hour is something I glimpse from a window in mid-afternoon. A sight that causes me to pause. For a moment.
Now that it is spring, golden hour is more like a place. We might wander in and out of the house all day, but as sunset nears a new door opens. It no longer matters what indoor tasks are pressing on us (homework, dinner prep, a pile of laundry on the dining-room table). When that door opens we will stay outside until the door swings shut and every last, golden drop vanishes.
This week, in this magic evening place, I have seen a two-year-old girl, her hair the same color as the light, kneel in a sea of violets. She used a stick to stir a basket overflowing with dandelions. She was so focused on her fluffy, yellow stew that she never saw the pink magnolia petals drifting behind her back. She never noticed the bright green buds from the maple tree dusting her shoulders.
This week, in the golden place, I have seen a brother and sister roll their bodies down a green hill, over and over again. My own shadow was so long, reaching toward them, it seemed as if I could wrap shadow arms around them while they rolled. I could use shadow hands to help them back onto their feet.
In the golden hour, all kinds of burdens are lifted. Dinner and homework and laundry matter so much less. Even the daily burden of gravity seems to lift. In this light, we walk somewhere between the earth and the sky, belonging equally to both. When the two-year-old cries, “I catch the moon!” I believe her.
Here is what I have seen in the golden hour: my children are beautiful, the earth is gentle, there is no reason, ever, to be afraid.
Here is why I hesitate to share what I have seen: Baltimore burns, another young black man is dead, wars rage, a marriage is ending, young parents grieve a baby’s diagnosis, a friend has landed back in the hospital.
I am strongly tempted to keep the vision of golden hour a secret. I know that my world is not the whole world. Do I tempt you toward jealousy if I say that this week my life, between the hours of six and eight, is almost unbearably beautiful?
Yet if I am silent then some essential part of the story goes missing.
CNN and NPR tell their stories, and we feel duty-bound to hear them. What about the good news? What about those dispatches from the golden hours?
The door to that place opens and closes according to a will that is not ours. Some evenings bring clouds and rain, and we are given only darkness.
I cannot even begin to guess why this is so.
But I hope that when the clouds move in, and darkness once again surrounds me, that you – yes, you – will have the courage to share your golden visions.
That I might know more of the story and take heart.
That I might glimpse the ending of it all and have hope.
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.
I am ashamed to admit this, but when I began writing this blog three-and-a-half years ago, I did it primarily because I felt I had to. I sensed God tugging me toward becoming a writer. When I hit publish on my first blog post I viewed the act, primarily, as one of simple obedience.
In other words, I did it, but reluctantly and dragging all of my fear and doubt and general insecurity along for the ride.
Now, when I look back, I see God’s mercy and his provision. I see how he gave me the support and encouragement of online friendships through a long season of transition, a season when I had few opportunities for face-to-face community.
I am humbled, and I am grateful.
I remembered all this recently as I sat with my friend Danielle over homemade pizzas at my own dining-room table. I “met” Danielle in the comment section of my blog. She is a talented writer and artist, and we love so many of the same books. She lives only an hour or so away by car, but I would never have known her apart from this strange landscape we call the blogosphere.
It is is with a great deal of gratitude that I share these words from Danielle with you, today.
Prepare Him Room
Joy to the World! The Lord is come; Let earth receive her king; Let every heart prepare him room, And heaven and nature sing…”
The song is so familiar that I barely notice the lyrics. I stream it from iTunes while making dinner. But suddenly these words cause me to pause:
Let every heart prepare him room.
This December I am great with child.
My belly is swollen with a child that thumps and kicks and pulsates life. Three weeks out from the due date we are preparing room. The crib is set up; the clothes are washed and stacked in neat rows in a freshly painted white dresser. I’ve been here before. The preparing and waiting. The waiting and preparing.
During this season of advent and pregnancy my thoughts turn to Mary. What was her waiting and preparing like? She rode the back of a donkey the last days of her gestation, uncomfortable, with no hotel room awaiting her with clean sheets and a hot shower at the end of the journey. God was becoming incarnate in her womb. It took nine months just like any other baby, so mundane yet extraordinary. Mary must have marveled at it so many times.
The startling visit from the angel was just the first of many miracles during her months of pregnancy. First Joseph didn’t believe her, but then had his own mysterious visitation, which changed his mind. She visited her relative Elizabeth—barren her whole marriage—who shared her own amazing story of angel visits and an unexpected yet joyous pregnancy.
Mary experienced the incarnation of Christ in the most unique way possible within the Gospel story. Physically, she birthed Jesus Christ. Spiritually, she praised God with her beautiful Magnificat, saying in Luke 1:46-49, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” She treasured and pondered the meaning of all the strange things that were happening to her: the conception and birth, the unexpected visit of shepherds, the “wise men” that showed up on her doorstep.
She believed in the incarnation. She held the incarnation in her own hands, had seen it with her own eyes. She herself became a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Mary teaches me that just like I’m preparing and waiting for the birth of my new baby, so I need to prepare and wait for the incarnation of Christ. Yes, as a historic event Christ has already come, but he’s coming too. He’s always coming, every year, every season, every day.
Everyday I can prepare room for Christ in my heart. I can make manifest the Holy Spirit at work inside my soul. Each moment of each day I have the opportunity to incarnate Christ to others.
That is what Advent reminds me to do. To prepare for Christ’s coming: past, present, and future. To be like Mary and prepare room for him in my heart.
Danielle Ayers Jones is a storyteller. Whether it’s with paper and pen or behind the lens, it’s one of the things she loves to do best. She writes regularly for Ungrind.org, iBelieve.com, StartMarriageRight.com, and FortheFamily.org. She also combines her love of writing and photography on her blog, www.danielleayersjones.com. It’s a space where she seeks to find beauty in the everyday, joy in hardship, and encouragement in unexpected places. Danielle lives in Maryland with her husband and three children and one on-the-way.
The world is loud and terrible this summer. It is as if the entire planet has tilted on its axis and dipped us all in nightmare.
The grass outside my bedroom window is dotted with yellow maple leaves. I don’t know if this is because summer is already ending or because the largest and oldest of the maple trees is dying. Perhaps it is both.
Land and growing things are broken, nations are broken, bodies and minds are broken. And we respond by shouting at one another.
I indulge in shouting some days, but, mostly, I respond by retreating into silence.
When my children explode over cracked Legos and the last popsicle, I struggle to stay with them in the noise. I want only to slip away, to climb the steps to my bedroom, to sit in the curve of the bow window noticing yellow leaves on the lawn outside.
The world grows louder, and I grow quieter. Sometimes, this feels like wisdom, but I know it is also weakness.
It requires strength to share our stories. To risk being misunderstood.
It requires faith to tell small stories. To believe that what seems to be inadequate is of value.
When my fourth child was born, my body struggled to make milk for her. The hormonal peaks and valleys of that process seemed to switch a lever in my brain.
I became depressed.
I had so many reasons to be happy, but depression sucked all emotion from my mind and filled the emptiness with anxiety. I can remember sitting in my comfortable, soft rocking chair, holding my baby, and trying to remember why I had once cared about babies or repairing old farmhouses or ordering seeds for the spring garden or anything at all. I could no longer remember why it mattered if any of us ever got out of bed.
When I stopped trying to nurse my baby, and the last of my milk dried up, the depression lifted. A severe mercy.
It meant that I knew happiness again.
It meant that I knew sadness again.
Healing looked like a renewed capacity for both joy and sorrow.
This morning I read these words from Psalm 105:
Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name;
make known among the nations what he has done.
Sing to him, sing praise to him;
tell of all his wonderful acts.
And I remembered what had happened to me after my daughter’s birth and knew that I did have a song of praise.
Thank you, Lord. Thank you for healing me enough to grieve.
For one year, I have heard this one word: return.
It is a word for the exile. For the younger son. For the wanderer.
It means home. It means healing. It means a new beginning.
“Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere … sound the trumpet throughout your land. Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each one of you is to return to his family property and each to his own clan.”
Leviticus 25: 9-10
Stepping into this new year, I have been reluctant to let this word go. I have not wanted a new word, or a new anything, but only more. More of what has been given. More of what has begun.
But isn’t that an ugly word, more? A greedy, grasping word? I refused to embrace it, until all I could hear was more, more, more repeating like a drumbeat in my head.
I gave in. I agreed to claim it … silently. I wouldn’t speak it out loud. How could I admit that my word, my prayer, for this year is so ugly? So easily misunderstood?
Until this day. It was three parts hair-pulling crazy (because no one can buckle their own skates, and the baby was determined to hurl herself out of the sled to faceplant in the snow), but it was one part glorious. A frozen pond for skating only yards from our front porch. Three children with Christmas-gift ice skates. On a Saturday. While the sun shone.
It was one part perfection. One part pure glory.
And it ended as abruptly as a bubble bursts. The older boy fell. The baby really was determined. But as we trudged back toward the house, the younger boy crying that his boots were full of snow, all I could think was we will return. There will be more skating. Every year, there will be more. I pictured a day when every child could strap on their own skates. A day when even my husband and I could step into skates and glide along. This is only the beginning, I thought.
The return is never a dead-end. No one returns to God only to say, “Now what?”
Instead, we turn toward God and see a door. Walking through the doorway, we discover … more. There is always more. To use the words of C. S. Lewis, “Come further up, come further in!”
To return to God is a way of life. It is a turning back toward wholeness, toward peace. It is like finding a home and feeling yourself stretching out to meet the years to come. Like a tree planted by water, those roots growing deep and deeper.
This is our second year at Maplehurst, and my word is more.
It is a song of praise. It is a song of joy. It is the song of the wanderer who has found rest.
And I cry, more, more, more.
Spring has finally come to Maplehurst, and we are living in a watercolor world. Trees are smudged with the almost-neon green of new buds. The ground is blurred by the purple and white of wild violets. Move your head too quickly, and the brilliant yellow of the dandelions might just look like a lightning strike.
For several days, I have noticed a spot of garish orangey-red near the laundry room steps. I assumed it was a child’s toy. Something awful and plastic. Today, I realized it was a patch of tulips striped orange and yellow. They have large, black polka-dots in their middles. They are the tackiest flowers I have ever seen, more like circus clowns than plants. These tulips, bursting out near the propane tank, prove spring does, in fact, have a sense of humor.
I was twenty-one before I witnessed a real spring, the kind that only comes after a long, cold winter. We were living near Washington D.C.. I had never seen redbuds and forsythia, cherry blossoms and tulips. And the dogwoods. Oh, the dogwoods.
I’d been raised by a farmer-turned-gardener, but I’d never paid much attention to plants. That first spring, something woke up in my twenty-one-year-old soul, and I’ve been paying attention to plants ever since.
On a walk to see the cherry blossoms near the Jefferson Memorial that spring, I noticed a spectacular flowering tree. It looked as if a hundred thousand delicate, pink-winged birds had come to rest on its branches. I took a closer look at the flowers, and I knew they resembled magnolia blooms.
I may not have paid much attention to Texas flora beyond the justifiably famous bluebonnets, but I, like any southern girl, knew that magnolias never lost their dark, glossy green leaves. I also knew that magnolia blooms are pure white, as big (or bigger) than a baby’s head, and they merely dot the tree, like ornaments placed just so.
In other words, this brilliant pink explosion of a tree could not be a magnolia.
But it was. That year, that first spring, I learned the difference between the south’s evergreen magnolias and the deciduous varieties grown farther north. I learned the difference, and I chased it.
After two years in Virginia, it was time to choose a graduate school. I took one look at the blooming pink magnolias lined up against the gothic grey of quadrangle walls and knew I’d be moving to Chicago.
After Chicago, I lived for two years in a Florida house with an evergreen magnolia centered proudly in the front yard. It was lovely, yes, but it reminded me that I was living in an eddy. My life had turned backwards and sideways. For two years, I had no spring.
Nine months ago, we moved to Pennsylvania, to this Victorian farmhouse called Maplehurst. I knew the old tree planted north of our front porch (a tree that must be as old as the house itself) was a magnolia. A deciduous magnolia. The largest I have ever seen.
And I’ve been waiting.
Waiting for God to keep his promises, waiting for life to get a little easier, waiting for spring – spring like we haven’t seen for three years – to come.
This was waiting as it is meant to be. Waiting with hope. Waiting with full expectation. This, not because I’ve finally mastered the spiritual discipline of waiting, but only because I have lived through a few winters, and I have seen them all end.
I have been waiting with eyes wide open because I could see the tree always outside my window. I knew what it had in store for me because I’ve seen it before.
But never this big.
Never this beautiful.
Never this good.
“Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come.”
Song of Songs 2: 12