Today, I glimpsed the first haze of pink on the old magnolia tree that towers over one corner of our yard. It is a magnolia tree worthy of a fairy-tale palace, but it presides over a chicken coop and a child’s yellow plastic swing. In summer it becomes the world’s largest shade umbrella, but in April it is a miracle. Too impossibly beautiful to be true.
I have witnessed this tree in bloom only once. I have waited eleven months to bear witness for a second time, but I am scheduled to leave town tomorrow for five days.
I can hardly bear it. Five days of good books and good talk and good friends, but I would trade all of it to be there the very moment the first pink flower opens. I imagine that if I am there I will finally solve a great mystery. If I stand still, and I do not blink, perhaps I can determine once and for all whether the flowers open or whether they alight on the branches like a flock of pink birds.
Last year, I blinked and became sure a great crowd of delicate rose-tinted wings had settled in the branches overnight.
Set your mind on things above. Those were the words I remember printed on the postcards and posters, magnets and bookmarks in the Christian bookstore I used to visit as a child. I do not remember any books in that store. But I remember Precious Moments figurines, and I remember those words.
Even as a child, I mistrusted them. And not only because they showed up on magnets meant to secure grocery lists to refrigerator doors.
They are good and true words. They are Scripture words, but they seemed at odds with my own way of seeing. As long as I can remember, I have been taken with the miniature flowers blooming in the crack of a sidewalk. With acorn caps like fairy hats. With the hollow spot in the trunk of the mulberry tree, just the right size for my small china dog.
In other words, I have always seen worlds at my feet. I have always seen infinity under a magnifying glass.
And if this great “above” is the blankness of the sky, if it is only a screen onto which I project my preconceived ideas about the Christ who is holding everything together, then I will stick with the things below. Not money or plans. Not ambition or to-dos. But the things we pass by in our rush toward all that does not matter.
Dead, brown grass beginning to creep with green.
Daffodil leaves like bunny ears reaching just a bit higher every day.
And even the heartbreak of tulip leaves chewed to the quick by hungry deer.
If I must set my mind on some thing above, I will not let it float too high. I will set it just there, no higher than the highest branch of the world’s most beautiful magnolia tree.
I will set it there, and remember what the stories say. That we began to walk with God in a garden. That Jesus the Christ gave the thief on the cross a great promise: Today you will walk with me in a walled garden, a paradise.
And I will turn my eye toward eternity in the very spot where eternity begins.
Which is the ground, the ever-flowing, ever-renewing, ground beneath my feet.
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)
“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
– James Joyce, “The Dead”
I want to write spring stories. I want to write glorious endings.
And why not? I am the storyteller. I am the one tap, tapping at this keyboard.
I know that others in this world are observing spring’s first blooms and taking walks on balmy nights. My snow-covered world is not the world in which everyone is living. I am winter-weary, and I want to move on to other themes.
But I have ceded control over my own stories. I have made a promise (to myself? To God?) to write stories rooted in my own particular place and this particular time.
And this place is snow-covered.
And Easter is still a long way off.
On Saturday I walked the halls of a large art museum. I listened to echoes. I stared into the deep brown eyes of a woman who died in Egypt thousands of years ago. Her funeral portrait is lifelike. It hangs at eye level. She looked about my age. We might have been neighbors, I thought.
After that, each work of art seemed connected to some soul. The silversmith who worked the bracelet. The painter who held the brush. The model who sat for hours. The dancers portrayed in silk. The anonymous ones who wove the tapestry.
Each room revealed more of the vastness of our world. So many people live on planet earth today, I cannot even conceive of them all. But add in every life in every place and each time for all of history? My small mind struggles to believe there is a God who has known and loved each one.
The end of the story is always the best part. It is the place where the messiness of the middle is resolved. The point where pain is redeemed and suffering fades into something beautiful. It is the place where I want to pitch my tent.
But I do not think we are always given that choice.
I keep seeing one particular crucifix. I encountered it in one of the museum’s rooms of medieval art. It was carved out of wood and out of anguish. The Christ figure was elongated and emaciated. Reaching tendrils of warm wooden hair seemed to say that this is pain without end.
This is suffering unfinished.
I drove long miles between the art museum and my house, and I thought about the crucifix. The carving was small enough to hold with one hand, but I wanted it to be bigger. I felt the heaviness of all those lives, like shades in every corner of the galleries. I wanted Christ crucified to be big enough to heal every soul for all time.
And I wanted it finished.
As I drove, snow began to tumble through the air. I could see it churning in the light of streetlamps and headlights. As it dusted rooftops and cornfields, I could feel winter settling back in for a longer stay.
We privilege endings, but we live in the middle.
This place is snow-covered.
And Easter is still a long way off.
These last awe-full days of Lent are upon us.
To be honest, the past few weeks seem to me like a blur of pictures and noise. The world is spinning faster now than it was just a month ago (something the poets know even if the scientists haven’t yet discovered it), and I feel the need to stop and steady myself.
And then … the headlong rush into a world made new.
I want to be ready. Or more precisely – I want to notice where it is already springing up.
I don’t want to miss any of it.
I’ll be opening my laptop a little less and stepping outside a little more.
Look for me in this space after Easter.
Thanks to our Photographer Kelli Campbell for this image of
my daughter on one of the most beautiful spring days I can remember.
Find more of Kelli’s photography here.
I spent most of Saturday outside. It looked nothing like spring, but I could feel it. By afternoon we had taken off our jackets and were warming ourselves with shovels and gardening gloves.
The firstborn and I cleared away some of the invasive (but gorgeous) vine that blankets the edge of our property.
Do you remember, I asked her, what the porcelain berries look like? Do you remember that china blue?
They looked fake, she says.
Which is true. And telling. The most beautiful things look unreal to us. Maybe they are a part of some other reality. Maybe we are too, for that matter.
The dead vines were papery and grey in our hands, but when I ripped one open we could see a shocking, acid green.
They only look dead, my daughter said with round eyes.
We are in those last days of winter. Those days when the cold has moved deep into my bones, and I no longer believe in spring.
I mean this quite literally. Three days ago I had myself convinced that the bleached yellow shade of our lawn was a sign it would never turn green. We killed it, I thought. Too many weeds, too many autumn leaves, and we killed it.
Today, I noticed a spotty green haze. Just here and there. And I remembered: I have seen resurrection. There is such a thing.
Six months ago, we named our daughter Elsa Spring. Soon – very soon – she will see her first spring. There are no words for all I feel about that.
Born in late summer, we named her Spring. Our last baby, our second daughter, she is yet everything new to us.
Before she was ever conceived “My beloved spoke and said to me, ‘Arise my darling, my beautiful one, come with me. See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come …” (Song of Songs 2: 10-12).
For a hundred and one foolish reasons I had not allowed myself to want another child, but I knew what those words meant. I bought a tiny, pink sweater, and I hid it in my dresser drawer.
Sometimes winter fools us. We are taken in by the surface of things, and death seems total and irreversible.
The truth is, we aren’t waiting for resurrection. We are living it.
“On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem … in summer and in winter.”