Perfect

It is summer.

Like the season itself, there is no ambiguity in this statement. It is a fact as plain and self-evident as the sun that now rises straight up to the top of the sky or the green tomatoes waiting on their vines.

In one of those rare congruences, the academic calendar and the moon calendar and every kind of calendar we might consult in this house agree that it is now summer. And most convincing of all, the fireflies are back. In the evening, I can see small, dancing pinpricks of light everywhere I turn. They flash and flash, and I imagine a crowd of fairies practicing their nighttime photography.

All month long, I have been tempted to use one particular word. I am tempted by the low humidity and the cool breeze. I am tempted by the first blooms on the rose bushes I planted in March. I am tempted by the orderly lushness of the green garden. Broccoli and carrot tops and kale exploding along their neat rows.

I want to say, but then I do not say: It is perfect.

***

I talk myself down from that word every time. Because tomorrow it will be hot or because the beetles will begin chewing on the rose leaves any day now or that lettuce will surely bolt (and turn bitter) in a week.

But I have confused perfection and permanence. Whoever told me that perfect is only perfect if it lasts?

***

My son and I share a June birthday. He is, has always been, a good and perfect gift. I can remember him at six months old and how I wanted him to just stay. Like that. Forever. I had already seen my daughter, my firstborn, turn from fussy baby to fierce toddler to fiery preschooler, and I had celebrated and mourned each beautiful transition. But I wasn’t sure I had the energy to do it all again. I thought my chill little baby boy was just perfect. Today, he is eight, and that, too, seems just about perfect.

But perfect isn’t permanent.

We celebrated our birthday with a canoe ride down the Brandywine River. The Brandywine River is as sweet and magical as it sounds. We paddled, we drifted, we observed the round stones of the riverbed through a few shallow feet of clear water, and I watched the back of my little boy’s head. From where I sat at the rear of the boat, I could hear him whispering over and over, “This is amazing. This is just great.”

This is perfect, I wanted to say. But I didn’t.

***

Thad

***

I used to think that earth was the place of imperfection and heaven the place of perfection. I used to think that this life was imperfect and death was the door toward perfect. I used to think that this world was change and impermanence and that other world? That’s where everything stays the same, forever.

But I no longer think it is quite so neat. I no longer believe the lines are so thickly drawn. And this is good news.

Today, I think that the kingdom of heaven Jesus spoke of so powerfully is more like a river. And that river is breaking out in deserts all over this place. And in so many corners of my shifting, changing life.

And I am determined. When perfect bubbles up, I will no longer avert my eyes. I will no longer bury it in a flurry of doubt and pessimism (it won’t last, it isn’t real, nothing is ever perfect).

Instead, I will dive in. I will say, this river is leading me home.

This Is The Beginning That Has No End

I have seen the first snowdrop, and I have seen the first crocus. Eight baby chicks are cheeping away in our basement.

Seasons generally do not shift like clockwork. They tend to pour like water. But as I stood in the yard yesterday, ringing that snowdrop bell with the tip of my boot, I was fairly sure that this was spring’s beginning. It’s exact, precise beginning, almost perfectly timed with the calendar month.

If spring has a beginning, it also has an end. I could see it unfolding in my mind’s eye: from snowdrop and crocus through daffodil and tulip and all the way on to snap peas and strawberries ripening in June.

***

Three years ago, I was living in Florida. I had only ever been in Florida for vacation, and our two years living there felt like an endless vacation. Which sounds lovely but was, in reality, devastating. At a certain point in every vacation, if that vacation is long enough, you find that you want nothing more than to go home.

Living in Florida, I couldn’t put down roots no matter how hard I tried. And every day my longing for home grew. I cried rivers of tears, and my tears were a prayer: God, please bring me home.

Often when we pray, we have some object in mind. I certainly tend to. But this prayer was different. It was more desperate, and, I think, more powerful, because I had no idea where my home might be. I only knew I needed it. Wanted it. Could hardly live without it.

In my desperation, I began to hear God speak. There is a ballpoint-ink star in my Bible. It is dated three years ago, and it marks these words: “A fountain will flow out of the Lord’s house” (Joel 3:18). Beneath those words I wrote this: “Fountain House Dream.”

I can no longer remember what I thought those words meant. Quite likely I had no idea. Today, I am only beginning to understand them.

***

The day we found Maplehurst, our Pennsylvania home, we visited eight old houses. The only house with a fountain on the property was this one.

Since we moved here a year and a half ago, I’ve imagined that those words “Fountain House Dream” were a small but surprising confirmation. A way of knowing that, yes, this was the place for us.

But I am beginning to think these words mean more than that. I am beginning to think they point toward my true home, which is not opposed to this pile of bricks called Maplehurst, but somehow deeper. As if I could step inside my own front door, and into some other reality. Some endless place.

Spring at Maplehurst has a beginning and an end, and yet observing spring on this hilltop has shaped my imagination. I am waiting for my magnolia to bloom, but I am beginning to see a perpetual spring. Not simply a spring that returns every year, but a spring that is endless.

I believe we were made for spring. We were made for newness. We were made for a spring that never pours itself out. This is spring like a fountain. This is spring like living water – not still water – and it is always new.

I think, despite lying appearances, that we may be living in just this season. I think it began with the very first Easter. Jesus was a seed, planted in death and sprouted in resurrection, and that seed has been growing ever since.

And so it is spring, though early spring. We still see so much dead grass. But come further up. Come further in. The snow has gone. Spring showers water the earth. Flowers are stirring, and water is flowing.

Easter will soon follow. It is our annual reminder, our yearly celebration: we are living a spring with no end.

***

(photo by yours truly)

(photo by yours truly)

***

Remember This: There is Glory in the Dirt

Last week, it snowed here at Maplehurst. Even after ten years lived in Chicago, I don’t think I have ever seen so much snow fall all at once. Granted, I left Chicago for Florida the winter before the once-in-a-decade, cars-stranded-on-Lakeshore Drive monster storm.

I remember that winter well. It was my first in Florida. Everyone I knew – neighbors at the bus stop, new friends at church – kept saying the same thing. Aren’t you glad you don’t live there anymore?

Which only made me want to cry. Because, no. The answer was no. I did wish I was there. In the snow. With my friends. In a place that felt like home.

*

 

chill

*

But now I feel at home again, although in a new place, and there is snow, and I am grateful. Crazy-eyed from the pileup of canceled-school days and disruptions to my cherished daily routines, but still grateful.

The evening after our Pennsylvania nor’easter, I looked out the window just after sunset. I saw what looked like a deep and rising sea of snow. I could even point out small windblown waves. As darkness blurred the edges of everything, those waves began to rise and fall. And creep higher. Deeper. Or, they seemed to. I felt the irrational worry that seawater would soon be seeping in around the window frames.

It was strange and startling. It was also beautiful.

Twenty-four hours later, our long driveway had finally been cleared. I walked the length of it, from front porch to mailbox, and decided the scene looked just like a wedding cake. Thick white frosting smoothed to perfection, and a driveway sliced cleanly away.

*

I tend to see the world in layered images like these. The result of a lifetime of reading, I suppose. The trick, I’m discovering, is holding on to both. Acknowledging the truth of both.

Snow-covered field and rising floodwaters. A freshly-plowed driveway and a slice of wedding cake.

Maplehurst is like this, too. It is an old, gracious, crumbling-a-bit-around-the-edges house. It is the scene of our daily happiness and daily headaches. The place where children laugh, and I yell at them to take their fun outside. Outside! I say. You can scream at your brother all you like just please don’t do it under my feet while I’m cooking dinner!

Yes, I’m afraid you’ll hear exactly that every day at 5 pm.

Maplehurst is also our dream-come-true. In spiritual terms, it is a fountain. A blessing. The one place on earth that, for me, is nearest to the throneroom of God. There is a river and it flows straight through an avenue of old maple trees.

It is both, and I must see both.

The spiritual reality is likely the most important, the most real, but I can’t let it crowd out the rest. If I’m going to write honestly and live honestly, I can’t forget the ground beneath my feet. I can’t forget what 5 pm feels like.

And it isn’t only honesty at stake. It is also love. If I am going to love my neighbor well, I can’t stop seeing the dirtiness of my own patch of dirt. I can’t forget that we are all together in this land of muddy snow and headaches and 5 pm yelling.

*

5 pm is still quite a few hours away. In the freshness of a quiet morning (the children have finally returned to school, the baby is happy and miraculously occupied with toys too big to be a choking hazard), something new occurs to me. Maybe, the trick is not learning to hold on to two true things. Maybe, there aren’t two realities: one spiritual, the other temporal. Maybe there is only the one. Maybe I must learn to see without splitting everything in two.

Maybe, there is glory in the dirt.

*

 

“I am mountain, I am dust

Constellations made of us

There’s glory in the dirt

A universe within the sand

Eternity within a man

We are ocean, we are mist

Brilliant fools who wound and kiss

There’s beauty in the dirt

Wandering in skin and soul

Searching, longing for a home.”

–          from “I am Mountain,” by Michael Gungor and Lisa Gungor

*

melt

 

*

These Farmhouse Bookshelves

Reading is a solitary activity.

Or, is it?

When we give books (whether tangibly or through a recommendation) a solitary pleasure is transformed into a shared joy.

 

nap time

This is what I thought as I put together these recommendations for you. I remembered the special friend who knew I would love this book of poetry. I remembered how she flew all the way from Chicago to Pennsylvania to stay with me, and I remembered when she put this book in my hand. She was right. I do love it, and it’s the fact of being so well known, as much as the book itself, that I am grateful for.

I also remembered the blogger who posted her love for this novel on facebook. I remembered the Chicago preschool teacher who kept copies of this writer’s books in her classroom. I know that the right books have a way of finding us at just the right time, and I hope I will always be a conduit for that magic.

I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book. – J.K. Rowling

At the risk of sounding foolishly repetitious, I want you to know that this is a magical book: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry: A Novel by Rachel Joyce. It’s a quiet book. Even simplistic at times. It flirts with sentimentality. And I loved it so much. This is a book that goes on working its magic in your mind and heart long after you’ve turned the last page.

This is a novel about an accidental pilgrimage. Harold Fry steps out of his front door believing he will go only as far as the mailbox at the end of his street. Whether personal demons come out to chase him or some invisible force pulls him along, the result is that Harold puts one foot in front of the other until he has walked from his southern coastal English village 600 miles to the Scottish seaside.

Though I guessed the plot twist from the beginning, I still found this to be a beautiful, quietly devastating novel. It looks squarely at failure (Harold’s failures, his wife’s failures, our many, human failings) without losing hope. Harold’s story is sweet, clever, enjoyable, and profound.

‘If I just keep putting one foot in front of the other, it stands to reason that I’m going to get there. I’ve begun to think we sit far more than we’re supposed to.’ He smiled. ‘Why else would we have feet?’ – Rachel Joyce

 

I was introduced to the picture books of Elsa Beskow eight years ago in my daughter’s Waldorf classroom. Waldorf education places a high value on fairy tale and the natural world, and I don’t think you can find that combination more clearly, or more beautifully, expressed anywhere but Beskow’s books.

Beskow was Swedish, and she wrote and illustrated dozens of titles between the 1890s and 1950s. One of my favorites, Peter in Blueberry Land, first appeared in 1901.

This is a story about a little boy searching for wild blueberries and cranberries for his mother’s birthday. Unable to find any berries, he sits forlorn on a stump in the forest until the tiny King of Blueberry Land takes pity on him. By the King’s magic, Peter shrinks in size and enjoys a day of pint-sized adventure with the many sons of the blueberry king and the red-capped daughters of Mrs. Cranberry.

We read this story over and over this summer because, well, blueberries! It’s one of those books that quickly becomes a kind of imaginative shorthand for the whole family. Wouldn’t that fern over there be a giant tree for the blueberry boys? we say. Or, Do you think Mrs. Cranberry shelters under a giant mushroom like that one?

The large format books are beautifully bound, but they can be hard to find. I discovered my copy of Peter sitting next to a display of butterfly-patterned china in a London department store. Last week, I spotted a large format copy of Children of the Forest in the gift shop of our local botanical gardens. The smaller, gift book editions are readily available on Amazon. We own a mini gift edition of The Sun Egg, and we return to it frequently even though it’s small. The baby seems especially enamored of its size, but I won’t let her play with these.

His mother was very pleased and said it was one of the nicest presents she had ever had. ‘Where did you find all those berries?’ she asked. But Peter smiled and shook his head. It was a secret between him and the King of Blueberry Land.

 

Sounding the Seasons by Malcolm Guite was a gift from a friend last spring. I’ve spent the summer reading and rereading these “seventy sonnets for the Christian year.”

Guite is a poet, priest, and musician from Cambridge, England. His sonnet sequence strongly reminds me of the seventeenth-century devotional poetry of George Herbert (a poet I’ve recommended here before), but it is also modern, cutting right to the heart of our contemporary preoccupations.

These poems stand alone as poems, but they are also beautiful accompaniments to the church calendar and to daily worship. By rights, I shouldn’t even include this title when claiming to give you “a peek at my farmhouse bookshelves,” because this book hasn’t seen a shelf since it arrived. It lives on my coffee table, on my bedside table, and stacked with my Bible on my desk. I carry it around with me, and I read it, at least a little bit, every day.

Some of you may have seen the sonnet I shared yesterday. Here’s one more:

                    O Oriens

First light and then first lines along the east

To touch and brush a sheen of light on water,

As though behind the sky itself they traced

The shift and shimmer of another river

Flowing unbidden from its hidden source;

The Day-Spring, the eternal Prima Vera.

Blake saw it too. Dante and Beatrice

Are bathing in it now, away upstream …

So every trace of light begins a grace

In me, a beckoning. The smallest gleam

Is somehow a beginning and a calling:

‘Sleeper awake, the darkness was a dream

For you will see the Dayspring at your waking,

Beyond your long last line the dawn is breaking.’

 

 

Because You Are My Best Birthday Gift

When I turned 29, I ate coconut cupcakes.

They were baked by my mother, in my kitchen, with my daughter. They were brought to my maternity ward hospital room by my pastor and his wife. That day I ate coconut cupcakes and introduced you to my dearest friends.

birthday cupcakes

Tomorrow, June 23, you and I will celebrate.

I made those same coconut cupcakes this week. I shared them with neighbors and sneaked more than a few myself after your bedtime, but, tomorrow, we won’t eat coconut cupcakes. We will share a dairy-free, wheat-free, nut-free birthday cake with Lego-shaped candles.

In the hospital, the day you were born, the nurse looked at the date on my admission bracelet and said, “Here is a son who will never forget his mother’s birthday.”

Tomorrow, I will probably remind you two or three times that it is also my birthday. But you are seven, and I do not mind all that much. Because you are the best birthday gift I have ever been given.

There is a story behind those words. A story to which I return every year on this day.

It is a story first of all about longing. I wanted a baby. I wanted a sibling for our daughter, but my body refused to cooperate. I had thought after our first experience, after the diagnosis and the referral to a good specialist, that the second time would be easy. We understood the problem, we would not wait to pursue the solution.

It was not easy.

It was so much harder. Because the drugs in which I had placed my faith did not work, it was also more hopeless.

Today, I am grateful for every month (months turning over into years) that I waited for you. Because of those months, the words of Job became my own: “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” Now when I imagine, like all the parents in this world, every horrible thing that might happen, I am not afraid. I know that God can meet us in the pain and there is nothing else like that encounter.

But our hearts are not so easily untangled from fear. After the miracle of your conception, fears I didn’t even know I had twisted my thoughts. I felt as if I owed so much to God, and I became convinced there would be some price to pay. I became convinced there was something wrong with you.

Until that day. That day, six months along, when a stranger placed her hand on my shoulder and prayed for me. That day a river was unleashed and when I came up for air the fear was gone. I heard God’s own voice whisper: “This boy is a gift. A good and perfect gift. There is no price to pay.”

You’d think I would have known. Your due date was close enough to my own birthday. Why didn’t I guess?

Somehow, I never dreamed I would meet you for the first time on my birthday. God’s stories are so much better than the ones we imagine for ourselves.

Yes, you were born on my birthday. You were a good and perfect gift, given the day I turned 29.

Since that day, I have had reason to be afraid. So have you. I have given you food with my own hand and seen the fear in your eyes as your throat begins to swell. I have called 911 on your behalf too many times to count. I have seen how tiny you seem lying there on an emergency-room bed.

And yet I have never questioned those whispered words.

There is nothing wrong with you. Not really. You are, indeed, perfectly made. The worst thing can happen, but the Love who made you will take care of you. I pray always that you will be healed, but I know my prayers have been answered before I ever prayed them.

We have journeyed from coconut cupcakes to blue marshmallow cakes to gluten-free bakery cakes with Lego-shaped candles, and now I know these three things:

God is good.

There is no need to be afraid.

And this: our lives are stories, and these stories are written by Love.

happy birthday

This One Word: Return

foot prints ~52/4 'soothing repetition'

 

There is a river, and it has washed my slate clean.

New home. New baby. New friends. New church. New weather. The year is new, and my days are full of new things.

Strangely, not one bit of it feels new. These are déjà vu days, and everything in them feels familiar and comfortable. As if I have already worn deep grooves into this daily life.

My baby daughter looks exactly like her sister, my firstborn. Holding this baby, nine years disappear, and I am a new mother again. I sit in the same rocking chair, she wears the same pink dress, and I sometimes can’t tell who is in my arms, the first baby or the last.

I tuck her into the same blue pram, and we walk beneath maple trees on our way to meet the school bus. I remember this stroller cutting through the icy winds on Chicago’s sidewalks, and I think I must have always known, somewhere deep within, that I was headed to this good place.

It is simply too familiar. I am not surprised by any of it. Only grateful. Deeply grateful.

I once wrote that I was living the first half of this verse: “Just as I watched over them to uproot and tear down … so I will watch over them to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 31:28).

Now I am living the second half.

My firstborn was a firecracker of a baby, and she broke me. In so many good and necessary ways, she broke me.

My fourth is like gentle rain in spring. One fierce and one gentle, they have both been good gifts.

There were years when all was uprooted. Now new things are growing. Both are necessary. Both are good.

I have been hearing this whisper for months, but now it is a shout: “Return! Return!”

I have said, “Yes, Lord, I am coming,” again and again I have said it until this moment, having just tipped over into this new year, I know I have arrived. I have returned.

And every day of this year, I will wake with one word in mind: return.

The poet T. S. Eliot says “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”

I have journeyed to my own beginning, and there is no surprise in this. Haven’t I always felt most at home with the One who names himself Alpha and Omega?

He is my beginning, and he is my end, and I have come home. I have returned; I am, every day, returning.

 

“My eyes will watch over them for their good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up and not tear them down; I will plant them and not uproot them. I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart.”

Jeremiah 24:6-7

 

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