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.
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. This season, as winter turns toward spring and Lent leans toward Easter, Elizabeth and I are writing letters, she beneath the pines and pecans, I beneath the hemlocks and maples. We will reflect together on our homebound journeys. We will explore the bonds of love and faithfulness that tie us, and not always easily, to these particular places and to the people sheltered within them. Please join us for an epistolary exploration of love, loss, and restoration.
Read Elizabeth’s letter of March 9 here. My response is below.
March 21, 2017
from my armchair near the window, with its view of soggy earth and snow
I, too, have been traveling, though I have not left this place.
My feet were firmly planted in spring. The early daffodils were up and nodding their heads, and the giant magnolia tree was a haze of pink. The two forsythia shrubs in our front lawn were beginning to pop, like yellow corn kernels tossed in a hot pan. But last Tuesday the wind picked up and hurled snow, then ice, at our window glass. It’s so loud, the kids said. And just like that I found myself in a winter world. And not winter’s last gasp, either, but winter as dark and ice-locked as any day in January.
Today, the calendar says spring, but the snow is retreating slowly, and the growing tips of the daffodils look bruised. They remind me of that proverb once bitten, twice shy. They look as hesitant as I feel. A few new projects beckon, and I have felt some old dreams stirring, as if their time draws near, but can I trust the weather?
You write of seeds. You say they are worth the wait. Yet even the seeds I planted in those warmer February days now trouble me. I have a long row of sweetpea seedlings on my kitchen windowsill. They are overgrown. White roots are beginning to worm their way out of the bottoms of the tall peat pots. Yet I cannot plant them out while snow is on the ground. I worry they will end up feeding the compost heap rather than scrambling up the lattice prepared for them in the garden.
Because it is Lent, I have been pausing throughout each day with a prayer book. Recently, my prayer book reminded me that March 25 will mark nine months before Christmas. On this day, the church celebrates the message the angel Gabriel brought to Mary. We remember how she said yes though she did not understand how such an impossible thing could come to be. How right it seems to recall, in these dark and muddy days of earliest spring, the seed that was planted within one young woman. The refrain for this week’s prayers is this: “On this day the Lord has acted; we will rejoice and be glad in it.”
I can remember a spring morning five years ago. I woke with those same words already dancing through my head: “This is the day … let us rejoice and be glad in it.” The words startled me. I was living then in a wilderness place, desperate for hope, desperate for newness, and praying for a home, yet it seemed, if the words in my head could be trusted, that something had shifted.
The following day, Jonathan returned from a business trip. He told me he had been offered a job in Pennsylvania. We could move as soon as we found a home, and the home we found not long after was Maplehurst.
First, there is the seed, planted in darkness. Only later, new life, miraculous, impossible.
Sorrow and joy do co-exist, as you wrote to me, and that is never more true than while we walk this sharp edge between winter and spring.
When I began this letter, the sky was low and gray. Now it is striped with blue, and I can see the shadows of the maple trees. Perhaps hope is not such a foolhardy thing. The sun seems to say, This. This is the day.
with grace, peace, and, yes, hope,
Image credit: Chelsea Hudson
There is a white oak tree near my house that is older than these United States.
Lately, I have needed the long perspective this tree provides. I have needed to remember that there are still living witnesses to years far beyond every one of our forty five presidents.
This one tree has outlived all the great divisions that have plagued our national community. It has outlasted the rebels and the loyalists, those who fought duels, and those who took up arms against their brothers.
But political division is much older than our country.
Even much older than this tree.
Did you know that Jesus called a traitor and a terrorist to be among his first followers? Of course, even those words are contentious. You could call Simon a freedom fighter. You could say Matthew was a law-and-order guy.
Simon was a Zealot. Matthew was a tax collector for the Empire. Politically, the space between these two makes the different between an American Democrat and an American Republican look as insignificant as the tiny bird’s nest I once saw tucked into a branch of the old oak tree.
Jesus ate with them both. Walked with them both. And while we might imagine that each man tossed his political opinions out like garbage when he chose to follow a carpenter from Nazareth, we have no evidence of that. It seems far more likely to me that they went on disagreeing about many things. Only now, they disagreed as they ate together, prayed together, and became servants of men together.
Each man saw some things clearly and was blind to others, and Jesus wanted them both on his team.
I know. I don’t like it any more than you do.
Perhaps you cannot imagine worshiping alongside someone who thinks abortion should remain legal. Perhaps you cannot imagine worshiping alongside someone who thinks abortion should be made illegal.
Feel free to insert any one of the many political issues that divide us.
For me, it is deeply painful to know that I love the same Jesus as some who favor closing our borders to Muslim refugees fleeing war. Perhaps you find it painful to realize that’s my view.
This is not easy. It will make us cry.
The only thing that will help is if we name one another rightly. Not pro or against. Not right or left. Not terrorist or traitor. But Beloved.
We who seek to follow do it well and we do it badly, often all on the same day, but always we are Beloved.
You and your neighbor both:
You and your enemy both:
I worry that the old oak tree down the hill from my house will not survive much longer.
The average lifespan of a white oak tree is three-hundred years, but this tree has already lived long beyond that. I believe the oldest white oak tree lived to see six hundred, but I doubt that it sat, as mine does, on the edge of a possibly over-watered and over-fertilized golf course.
Not even the grandest tree is immune to the decisions of men and women. Shall we tend forest, pasture cows, or build a golf course? Even these seemingly non-political decisions have something to say about our political commitments, and even the most personal experience can become political.
Politics matter. After all, justice, as Cornel West has said, is what love looks like in public.
I can almost guarantee that you know a woman who sees the face of the man who groped her in the face of our new President.
And I am sure most of us know someone who remembers when their public school teacher began the day with prayer and worries that the faith of his grandchildren is at risk in our now much more secular culture.
Politics is personal. And, yes, lives are at stake.
I will go on choosing silence. I will go on choosing speech. I encourage you to do the same.
Lord, help us to know when to choose the one and when the other.
And let your banner over us be Love.
Earlier this week, I drove the curling, twisting country roads between my house and my youngest boy’s school. We carpool with neighbors, and I make that same drive on most afternoons.
It is twelve minutes, precisely. Twelve minutes of fieldstone farmhouses, enormous red barns, undulating fields, and one silvery, meandering brook. I see more cattle and horses than cars. I pass not one but two little houses that once were one-room schools.
We’d had sun for days, the kind of low autumn sun that blinds you all day long, but this day the sky was whitewashed. We have reached that point in November when the only green left is the dense, foreboding green of the hemlocks, the spruces, and the pines. Many of the deciduous trees are bare, and looking at them is like looking straight into the face of winter.
What remains is like a volcanic eruption: crimsons and coppers and a gold so gold it smolders. I had thought the autumn colors still here at the end of the season would be faded and delicate, but the trees I saw were heavy. They were fierce. They didn’t need sunlight to make them burn.
Those trees were disturbers of the peace.
This week, I’ve been remembering that moment in Luke when Jesus gazes out over Jerusalem and weeps.
The tears come just after he has been hailed as king. The adoration and praise were so chaotic, so exuberant, and so politically charged, that the religious leaders cried out, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” But Jesus said, “I tell you … if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”
And then he weeps for this city. He cries because peace is so near yet so hidden from them.
All I want in my house is a little peace and quiet, and most days I’ll pay any price.
My youngest two erupt together with such regularity that I have no patience for detangling the threads of their accusations. I don’t care! I yell. Just be quiet!
In my better moments, I beg them to apologize. I ask them to share a hug. Please, guys, just patch things up. All I want is a little peace and quiet while I cook your dinner.
Yet I know that the prophet Jeremiah’s rebuke is for me: “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.”
“Peace, peace,” I say, because I do not want to face their anger, I do not want to feel their hurt, I do not want to see the wounds.
I come by my avoidance, honestly. In the south we are nice to a fault. We say bless her heart, and while we sometimes mean exactly that, we sometimes mean, would you look at that fool. The true meaning of our words can be elusive.
I have missed that southern niceness in every home I have ever made since first moving away. Chit chat with the store clerk and a friendly wave to the passing driver can make the world go round more pleasantly. Southern niceness says, I see you. It says, I may not know you, but I am sure you are worth my time.
Southern niceness has not always served me well. I will always remember the teaching evaluation I received at the end of a semester-long course that included a few particularly disruptive first-year college students. One student wrote, “Dr. Purifoy is very nice. Perhaps too nice.”
Niceness is sometimes loving and sometimes anything but.
Peace and quiet is sometimes peaceful and sometimes it is its very opposite. It is sometimes a wound so well-bandaged, so hidden and obscured, there is little hope for healing.
Maybe it is enough to hail Jesus as king. Perhaps all we need do is wave our palms and sing a chorus of praise. Will that still the stones? Will that quiet the disruptive song of the trees?
I think not. Ours, after all, is a weeping king. Ours is a king with a heart broken for us. Could it be there are days when the only way to sing his praise, the only way to acknowledge his kingship over us, is to cry with him, to ask, Lord, what wounds do you see? Lord, what is hidden from me?
For months, I’ve been stumbling over the same few verses. I don’t go looking for them, but they are there when I open my Bible, there in an email from a friend, there in a sermon on Sunday morning. They are chasing me down.
The first comes from the story of Nehemiah. The walls of Jerusalem are in ruins, and repairing them is an impossible task. Nehemiah inspired a few to begin rebuilding, but the willing are mocked for their efforts. Nehemiah is not deterred: “The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding.” Having been confronted by those words for the fourth or fifth time, I sat in my office trying to puzzle them out. Did they have something to say to me? But it was difficult to focus with the sound of a grinder chewing up mortar right outside my window.
Brick by brick, we are repairing the walls of this old house.
The second verse comes from Isaiah: “Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.”
Repairer of Broken Walls. I don’t even understand the meaning of that name, but the sound of it is like music. I know it’s the name I most desire for myself. For my family. For my church and for my community.
Yesterday, after dropping my daughter off at preschool, I drove the curving, narrow road down toward the center of our little town. Just before I crossed the railroad tracks, I noticed a building with a graffiti-covered wall on my left. Harsh triple K’s crawled like spiders toward the roof. On my right, directly across from the wall, was a little Missionary Baptist church. The flower pots on either side of the church’s front door overflowed with the fiery lava colors of autumn.
All it took were a few phone calls and a message on the local message board, before dozens of neighbors had mobilized to become Repairers of Broken Walls. As is often the case among neighbors, there is more passion than consensus.
Some are sure the vandalism has been there for years, some are convinced these particular stains are new. Some see racist hatred and some wonder if it might not actually be a protest against racism? The graffiti is a little ambiguous. Like many messages shared in anger, it has not changed anyone’s mind, merely given birth to confusion and outrage.
We are not sure if we’ll paint a mural or merely wash on some beige. Should we plant shrubbery? Install a light or a camera?
Thankfully, we need not agree in order to begin the work.
We can gather. Talk face to face. And pick up that first stone. That one. Right there. The one just crying out.
Go on, says the stone. Disturb the peace that is not really peace, says the tree. Because one thing creation knows, has always known, is that we hail him as King by making his kingdom visible.
Brick by brick and stone by stone.
His feet are clay.
As has ever been true of kings.
Some might say there is nothing in this to grieve. Nothing to cause fear. Certainly no reason for surprise.
What was true of Daniel’s king, was true of David, and true of Solomon, too. Has, in fact, been true of every man or woman to whom we have bowed or pledged our allegiance.
But I have heard the bitter weeping of the envoys of peace, and I am not satisfied with explanations or arguments or platitudes.
I go on dreaming. I go on singing. I go on telling tales of a better king.
This king “will take pity on the weak and the needy.”
This king will “defend the afflicted among the people.”
This king will “will be like showers watering the earth.”
My eyes have seen the king in his beauty.
I have glimpsed a land that stretches afar.
It is a peaceful abode and a place of broad rivers and streams.
No galley with oars rides them. In this place, even the lame carry off plunder.
Because the loaves and fishes are ever being broken and passed on, they multiply. Because the jar of oil is always being emptied, that jar is never dry. There is more than enough for me and my neighbor.
There is even enough for my enemy.
This is the song I sing, yet I cannot always be singing.
When I pause my song, when I wake, or when my story reaches its end, I weep.
I weep because the king we hold in our hands falls so very short of the king who ever walks on the edge of my dreams.
I sit by the river, and I weep when I remember all that I have seen. I weep when I remember the prayer of generations:
Thy kingdom come … on earth as it is in heaven.
*my own song is inspired by Psalm 72, Psalm 137, and Isaiah 33
We’ve been here before: waiting for that callback from the on-call nurse, waiting to find out if we’re headed to the emergency room with this child.
But it never has been this child.
Her older brothers, yes. From staples in the scalp to midnight croup, from epi-pen jabs to that one nightmarish choking incident. We’ve called 911. We’ve opened the door for paramedics. We’ve carried little boys out to the car in the cold and dark of the night.
After thirteen years of parenting, we aren’t frightened by much. After nearly twenty years of marriage, we’ve reached a state of calm. It takes a lot to rattle us.
When Jonathan carried Elsa to the car on Labor Day and headed for the emergency room, I wasn’t afraid. When he called to say they were admitting her to the children’s hospital, I wasn’t afraid. When they told me the next day that she needed to stay for a second night, I wasn’t afraid. Asthma is our family inheritance, after all. From grandmother to mother to daughter and son. It is familiar to us.
When we brought Elsa home again, her virus-weakened lungs having been strengthened by inhalers, and fluids, and oxygen in a snaking tube, we remarked on how capable we had felt through the entire ordeal. Maybe after four children we had learned a thing or two? We know when to call the doctor’s office. We know how to trust (in doctors, in nurses, in God above).
We know how to stay calm.
We know how to move on.
A week has gone by, and it occurs to me there is something I don’t know. I don’t know how to stop seeing it. I don’t know how to forget.
When I lie in bed at night, my mind replays one moment over and over: Elsa, lying in our bed and working so very, very hard to breathe. The muscle at the base of her throat flutters with each quick and shallow breath.
It looks like a small butterfly trapped just beneath her skin.
On Monday, one week after she went into the hospital, we celebrated Elsa’s fourth birthday. She opened presents in the morning, and we ate pink birthday cake in the afternoon, but her favorite thing was the iridescent butterfly balloon.
She carried it around the house. She played with it outside in the yard. She lay down in the grass and held it over her head. All the better to see those butterfly colors against the deep blue of the September sky. All the better to carry on a laughing conversation with a soaring balloon.
The weather lately has fluctuated between just right and still too hot. We’ve spent a lot of time outside in it regardless. Elsa hunts for caterpillars in the herb garden that grows just outside the kitchen door. These particular green caterpillars seem very fond of Italian flat-leaf parsley.
I found one perfect, orange butterfly wing fluttering in the grass. I thought at first it was a butterfly, and I wondered why it didn’t fly away as I approached. Leaning down, I saw that it was only the one wing, caught on a blade of grass, moving back and forth in that day’s hot, dry wind.
Lord have mercy, I thought, this child I love is as fragile and vulnerable as a butterfly.
I am, too, I suppose, no matter how solid my own body feels when I plant my feet on the ground of my garden.
We are gossamer.
We are tissue-thin.
Liable to be whipped about in the slightest wind.
What is it Scripture says?
“The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more” (Psalm 103:15-16).
Those words have always made me feel sad. And afraid.
But I have learned how to be unafraid. I have learned that. There is sadness, yes, but there is beauty, too. We are like flowers. We are like butterflies. We are jewel-colored. We fly swiftly. We dance in the wind.
I want to forget, but these are precious things. God, I pray, make me strong enough to remember all of it.
The broken wing.
The brilliant orange.
The broken lungs, and the small, laughing voice.
Give my own weak lungs breath to sing the whole Psalm, all the way through:
“The life of mortals is like grass,
they flourish like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.
But from everlasting to everlasting
the Lord’s love is with those who fear him,
and his righteousness with their children’s children …
Praise the Lord, you his angels …
Praise the Lord, all his heavenly hosts, …
Praise the Lord, all his works everywhere in his dominion.
Praise the Lord, my soul.”