From my kitchen window I can see a blue plastic sled stranded at the top of a small hill.
Last year, our first spring at Maplehurst, we edged the hill on one side with blueberry bushes. We shored up the other side with an asparagus patch. We planted a peach tree and a cold-hardy fig like two flags at the top, but the kids have carved a downward path that manages, usually, to carry their sleds around their mother’s precious plants.
The snowcover on the hill is shrinking, and the sled is marooned. I can imagine it still sitting there in July, nearly forgotten in the weeds.
The sled I see clearly, but it is much harder for me to imagine July’s green abundance. Here, in early March, there are no signs of new life. Instead, the snow seems to be coughing up rusted buckets and wilted kickballs.
These hinge weeks between winter and spring are always ugly, but, thanks to February’s ice storm, this one is particularly awful. Brown grass and mud are mixed with splintered wood; our world looks as if it has only just survived some disaster.
From my kitchen window, I see a waste land.
The trees, still bare, no longer remind me of elegant bones against the sky. Instead, they look naked, and I am ashamed for them.
At church, it is the first Sunday of Lent. The cross carried in procession is veiled in purple, as if we cannot yet bear the sight of our redemption. Easter, like spring, is still too good to be true.
The reading from the Old Testament this day is from Genesis. Adam and Eve discover their nakedness, and they are ashamed.
This season I am following my friend Sue’s example and praying daily one simple prayer: Search me, God, and know my heart.
This prayer is simple and brief, but it isn’t easy to pray. It feels like a deliberate stepping out into the open with no clothes. Not even a fig leaf.
I thought this prayer would open my eyes to some sin. Instead, my eyes have been opened to something much more complicated.
T. S. Eliot describes it in his own meditation on a wasted, blasted land:
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow …
Winter’s rest is melting away, and I am waking up to a great desire. And I find this terrifying. Exhilarating, too.
Spring won’t truly arrive until I have dreamed and ached to pick asparagus, blueberries, peaches and figs. First, the longing. Then, the feast.
And the new plans God has for my life can’t be realized unless I first recognize the desire planted in my heart. Certain dreams will never come true unless I first wake up and remember them. But to remember them enough to pray for them is to stand naked before God. There is no more hiding the depth of my desire. There is no shrinking from the fear that he will say no or not yet. Sometimes spring is interrupted by a killing freeze.
God is tugging me – and you – towards resurrection.
But the road is a cruel one.
You were a child, and they wanted only the best for you. So they told you your heart was deceitful. They told you that every desire was only a misplaced desire for Him.
They spoke the (partial) truth in love, and you took their words to heart. Those words kept you safe. They kept you on a narrow way, and you will always be grateful for that.
But Jesus never promised safety; He promised abundance. The abundant life is a wide-awake life, and it is anything but safe.
Infertility was unexpected. It was a hammer blow to your heart, and when your heart cracked open something precious and dangerous slipped out.
First one and then one more. And just when you thought that was all, convinced you’d closed the box up tight, even more would come leaking out. We were made to be deep water, but you were terrified when you first glimpsed the depths of your desiring self.
You wanted, and you wanted fiercely. You wanted a baby of your own. And when that miracle baby was born you asked for more.
There are three things that are never satisfied, / four that never say, ‘Enough!’: / the grave, the barren womb, / land, which is never satisfied with water, / and fire, which never says, ‘Enough!’ (Proverbs 30:16).
Babies were only the beginning. You wanted to earn that PhD. You wanted to live in the big city. You wanted to read poetry on green Irish cliffs.
You wanted to live a life that mattered. You wanted to create. You wanted to be loved.
Fiery desire had been unleashed. You held your hands to the flames, and you were consumed.
God gave you the babies. God gave you the degree. God gave you poetry in Ireland, and God gave you love.
But God wanted to give you more. So He took you to the wilderness.
You cried every day for two years, Lord I want to go home. Lord I have no home. Lord I want to go home. Please, oh please, take me home.
When God led you through the desert to the farmhouse on the hill, you heard again the message given by those well-meaning Christians all those years ago.
It is true that all desire is misleading.
Desire isn’t necessarily wrong (though it might be). It isn’t necessarily sinful (though it might be). Desire is misleading because, if God-given, it leads you somewhere unexpected.
The babies bring joy, but they grow so quickly and every day they slip just a little further from your arms. The PhD sharpened you, but it didn’t provide the career you imagined. The house is a dream-come-true, the garden is your canvas, but the work is relentless and you do not have what it takes.
Those things do not satisfy completely but wanting them was never wrong. Those dreams were planted in you by God himself and in reaching for them you found something better – someone better – than any dream-come-true.
Sitting in the deep recess of the old parlor window, you notice the snow beginning to dust your hilltop. Stepping outside, snowflakes tap-dancing on your cheeks, you feel a great longing well up in your heart.
This is a familiar feeling. For years, you could see some clear thing whenever you felt it. A child. Or an accomplishment. Or a garden of your own. But you have come home and what is there left to want? What is the object of this longing and where will it lead?
Perhaps the snowflakes blur your vision just enough to help you see. Because it is here – in the snow on the hilltop – that you finally glimpse the truth. Yes, the farmhouse on the hill is a gift, God-given, but it is only the shadow of your true home.
Now you understand that God is, that he has always been, leading you home to himself.
In late December, the seed and nursery catalogs began arriving. I dove in. When I came up for air, I tried to remind myself I was planning a vegetable plot, not an eight-hundred square foot formal rose garden.
It is easy to get a little lost in a pile of seed catalogs.
These are the days for rest, both for you and your garden. Unless you live in Florida.
I’ve heard it said that southern gardeners should take their winter break in late summer. Which is sort-of true. No one can grow tomatoes in Florida in August. But, it is also not true at all. You may give your vegetable beds a break, but the grass, the weeds, and those horrible invasive vines covered in thorns do not take a break. Unless you want your house to disappear back into the primeval jungle, you had better not neglect the August garden entirely.
I only gardened in Florida for two years, but I am still recovering. As it turns out, I need a good long break from working my bit of ground.
I need a season for rest. I need a season for dreams.
Rest can be painful. A persistant ache. Dreaming hurts.
I love winter in the north, but I don’t find it easy. I long for sunshine. For warm air on the skin of my arms. For flowers and green grass and those little breezes that feel like a caress. It is a season for rest, but this means it is also a season for waiting, for desiring, for pressing hard against the blunt edges of everything you dream about but do not yet hold in your arms.
It is a season of emptiness.
True rest means returning to God. But this is not as easy nor as pretty as it sounds. It is often anguish that sends us back.
Back to the source of dreams, back to the source of every good and new thing.
Back to the only One who can renew our hope.
“The language of souls is their desire.” – Gregory the Great
Like every good thing, it can be twisted. Exhibit A may be the wandering Israelites and their golden calf, but exhibits B through Z are not hard to find. No need even to name them.
Well aware of exhibits A through Z, desire begins to look dangerous. It begins to look like fire. Afraid of being burned, we push it aside, we cover it up, we warn our children about playing with fire, and we forget. We forget how much we need that life-giving warmth.
I can remember the day my Sunday New York Times magazine flipped open to a photograph of an old, rambling farmhouse. I sat in my Florida ranch home with its persistently green vegetation, and the desire I felt for that other house nearly knocked me out of my seat.
In the picture I could see trees turning orange, pumpkins on the porch, and a tower room that looked perfect for a writing desk. I imagined children (a bigger crowd than my own three) running across the lawn, while someone (couldn’t be me) watched from the windows. I pictured a henhouse and vegetable garden off to the side, and a woman writing stories in the tower room (of course, she wasn’t me; the only thing I’d ever written was a dissertation and that was an experience I was not eager to repeat).
In that image, I could see an entire life. It looked beautiful, but it could never be mine. I didn’t even consider it. That would have been like considering a trip to the moon.
I was a mother of three (there would be no more), I had recently applied for a tenure-track professorship at a small Florida liberal-arts school, and I was, however reluctantly, mapping out a future among the palm trees.
But those northern maples were blazing in my magazine, and I could feel their heat through the page.
Here is a long story made very short: God was speaking to me, and the medium of communication was desire.
It is a dangerous thing to listen to that voice. One day you are living reasonably, making reasonable plans, and fulfilling every obligation and expectation, and the next? You are on your knees warming your hands over a magazine picture until … you are consumed.
You have played with fire, and your life will never be the same.
Praise be to God.
If this room were hanging on the wall of a museum, like a painting, I would call it “After the Celebration.”
The fabric birthday banner is draped over a dining room chair (having fallen, gracefully, from the top of the china cabinet). A pile of gift bags, in shades of pink and purple, is stacked on the floor waiting for a return trip to the third-floor closet. I think there may still be a few candles, slick with the crumbs of a cinnamon-apple cake, hiding beneath the birthday cards lined up across the tabletop.
I am not yet ready to sweep away the remains of this past year or the party with which we ended it. I am following the trail of these crumbs trying to piece together the story of my baby girl’s first year.
I suppose it is more my story than hers. One day she will look at photos from this day and feel utterly disconnected from the beautiful baby in the pink dress. If I can discover the story, the meaning that lurks in a messy pile of remembered odds and ends, I can pass it on to her.
A better gift, I think, than any doll or keepsake book or slice of cake.
I don’t have what it takes (and what does it take? Time? Skill? Dedication?) to pray long or complicated prayers for my children. Instead, I ask for a verse, I write it on an index card, and I pray it just whenever I find myself sitting at my desk.
All year my prayer for this child (my second daughter, my last of four babies) has been less of a prayer and more of a long exhalation of gratitude. I have prayed this: “A longing fulfilled is sweet to the soul” (Proverbs 13:19a).
However, this story doesn’t begin with longing. It begins with my determination not to ask or desire. It begins with a hole in my heart where longing should have been.
After the birth of our third, I gave away the baby things. I packed clothes in boxes and mailed them off. I left books at the used-book store. I sold the pricy breast pump on consignment.
This made perfect sense. Having finally earned my PhD, I was embarking on a career that left little space for more babies. I would soon round the corner of my late 30s. But beneath the reasonableness was something much darker: fear.
I had three children, but I had never conceived without doctor visits, invasive tests, medications. Even the surprise of my third pregnancy arrived only after months of tearful prayers.
I had always assumed we’d have another daughter. I sometimes remembered the tiny pink things I had packed away years before, but when I tried to imagine praying for another baby, waiting for another baby, I couldn’t.
Whatever store of desire had fueled my prayers for three children I had used it all up. I was empty, so I gave away every last object that might say hope.
Here, then, is the beginning of the story.
It is the quiet, twilit hour of bedtime. I am sitting at the end of my daughter’s turquoise bedspread. Her face is lost in shadow, but I can hear her voice clearly: “I want a sister.”
I have heard these same words before. I have heard them many times. I think it is exasperation that prompts my reply, but I wonder now if it was my own desperation?
I tell her, “I can’t give you a sister. Only Jesus gives babies. If you want a sister, you have to ask him.”
You might think this memory became meaningful only in hindsight. But that is not the truth. I knew something had happened as soon as the words left my mouth. It felt as if a boulder had shifted. Where there had been nothing within me but irritation there was something new.
Was it desire? Was it hope? I’m not sure I can name it, but it felt like this: pain.
My daughter prayed, and here is where hindsight does color this memory. Looking back, I really cannot say whether it was her prayer being offered or my own.
“I prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted me what I asked of him.”
I Samuel 1:27
*first photo by Kelli Campbell, second photo by Christie Purifoy