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.
Find Elizabeth’s first letter here. My response is below.
March 1, 2017
From the kitchen table at Maplehurst, where a peacock blue, block-printed tablecloth is scattered with the crumbs of last night’s pancake supper
As I write, Dr. B is smoothing down our old oak floors with an electric sander. It sounds as if an airplane has flown in through an open window by mistake, a mechanical bird looking for escape. Once the old finish is removed, he will soak the wood in a mixture of tung and orange oils. The dull, dry floorboards will absorb their own luster until they can absorb no more. Then the floors will shine for the first time in many decades, and my children will no longer gather splinters with their bare toes. He says the finish will take a month or so to cure. While we wait, the rugs will lie rolled up in the basement, and the house will smell like a grove of Florida citrus.
Dr. B is our doctor of old houses, and he does indeed have the healer’s gift. He came to us a year ago when Jonathan and I found that we had fallen into a silence more sinister than the usual quiet lull between house projects. This was the silence of rotted wood beyond our ability to repair and crumbling limestone mortar whose nineteenth-century recipe was a puzzle we could not hope to solve.
The first time I met him he showed me photographs of his intricate, swirling plaster work. I admired them like I admire sculpture in a museum. It did not matter that our plain, Quaker-built farmhouse has no decorative plasterwork. The second time I met him he told me he’d been praying for one more old house to restore. Maplehurst was the answer to his prayer, but he is the answer to ours.
Here in Pennsylvania, a mild winter appears to be coming to an early end. I have seen the very first of the bright yellow daffodils called “February Gold.” Despite their name, they have never bloomed for me in February, until this year.
Soon, then, he and I will turn our attention outdoors. He to the red bricks in need of fresh mortar on the west side of the house, and me to the garden. Before I plant out sweet peas and dig in bareroot roses, however, I need to finish wallpapering and painting “Julie’s room.” For two years, our friend Julie lived in this room, but last month she moved out to a place of her own. I have chosen a pale, not-too-pink shade of pink for the sloped attic ceiling and walls, and a bold pink-and-blue floral wallpaper for the window wall at the far end of the room. Quite likely, we will call this bedroom “Julie’s room” forever, but I intend it to be a bedroom my two nieces can call their own each time they visit.
Perhaps I plant baby trees so enthusiastically because I, like you, live in fear that one of our ancient pines will one day topple down, taking our front porch with it. Restoration that peels back the ravages of time like layers of old paint is such a hopeful thing. But the restoration required of us in the wake of disaster, even a disaster as small as a broken pane of glass or the deep scratch my boys left on the banister, is a more daunting cross to carry. In my weariness, I opt for bandages that hide but do not heal. Months ago, I taped a square of cardboard across the missing pane of glass in the door to my potting shed. Now I can see that cardboard flapping in the breeze.
Restoration is beautiful to contemplate, wonderful when finished, but often difficult to live. In this season at Maplehurst, restoration is the bone-rattling sound of renewed floors. It is the rosy-pink glow of a bedroom decorated for young girls. It is also the note on my calendar reminding me that my husband will soon travel to escort our nieces to their Daddy-Daughter Dance.
To commit oneself to restoration, we must be willing to draw near to brokenness. Broken floors. Broken hearts.
Today is Ash Wednesday. Tonight, I will make the drive to church with my children. I will allow four soft, small foreheads to be smudged with a mark of sin and death. We are turning toward spring, toward resurrection, yet I worry: is restoration second-best? Is it always not-quite-as-good-as new? When I study these many broken things, I know I want better-than-new.
The broken walls, of which Scripture speaks so often, are only partially rebuilt. The ruins have only begun to be repaired.
But the work has begun, and this gives me hope.
With gratitude for your listening ear,
You can find Elizabeth Marshall’s letters and more of her beautiful words here.
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.
I always know just how long it’s been since we moved to this old farmhouse called Maplehurst. I can judge it by the length of her curls and the stoutness of her legs.
I was eight-months pregnant when I watched the London Olympics surrounded by teetering piles of unpacked cardboard boxes. Elsa Spring was born six weeks after we moved in. This week she and I watched Olympic “gymtastics” while I held her on the sofa in the family room.
I wrote about our first year in this place in a book called Roots and Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons. I wrote about how small and slow this new beginning was for us. We had such big dreams. I wanted to see them realized immediately, but before we’d even unpacked all of the boxes, I had a baby daughter in my arms. Not long after that, winter settled in. Ice on the windowpanes. Ice in my veins.
That first year was a year for slow and small. Those first four seasons were all about be still.
And since then? The days have continued to feel slow and small and ordinary. It is only when I look back, only when I take in the full sweep of four years all at once, do I feel that explosion of new life.
Nothing has been small. Nothing has been slow. Nothing has been ordinary.
All along, God has been doing a new thing. And I am a witness.
What has happened in four years? We welcomed a daughter, we watched four children grow, I wrote a book, we built gardens, and we have almost filled our guestbook with names. I wrote about that, the guests and the flowers, in a recent piece for Art House America. You can read my quiet manifesto here.
We continue to dream new dreams for this place and for those who join us here, which means we continue to wade through the small, and the slow, and the ordinary.
The house is wrapped in scaffolding, but thanks to the care of two men, the one-hundred-and-thirty-year-old bricks haven’t looked this solid since the year they were laid. The worn, black shutters have been removed, and the day when we will reinstall them, either repaired or remade, feels impossibly far away. One by one, a local craftsman is restoring our windows, but it could be years before every window in this house is repaired. Yet once stripped and repaired, these old windows with their wavy glass will welcome cool breezes for another hundred years.
It feels, four years on, as if we are still in the messy middle. Those words I wrote in Roots and Sky have lately come floating back into my mind:
We love beginnings, and we privilege endings, but we live most of our lives in some sort of middle. Life is perpetually unfinished. That is its nature. – Roots and Sky, p 122
Unfinished it may be, but I can say with confidence that here at Maplehurst I have seen the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. And that is enough for me.
God’s goodness and the world’s grief are not as irreconcilable as I sometimes think. Four years ago, I could not have anticipated the sorrows that would visit us in this place. I wrote about the grief of that first, hard winter in Roots and Sky. I have written about other sorrows here on this blog.
Four years ago, I could not have anticipated how much would be given and just how much would be taken away. It is good that I did not know. It is good because I would have weighed it all in some balance. I would have asked if the gains compensated for the losses. Would there be more laughter than tears? More happiness than grief?
But I have learned that joy spreads its roots through laughter and tears. I have learned that sometimes we receive the most when something precious has been lost. Abundant life is mystery, not mathematics. Or perhaps, mathematics, which I’ve been told is the language of the universe, is more mysterious than I knew.
There is a wise woman in Proverbs. She is one who “can laugh at the days to come.” What will the next four years bring? I feel too sobered by the recent past to laugh. Considering time, I cannot help but tremble. It is so clearly held in hands that are not mine.
I may not be laughing, but I do feel very small and very still. Four years on, I am no longer fighting the wisdom of this place. So much has grown here in these four years: a baby girl, a book, a ring of apple trees. The soil here was always fertile, but we have watered it faithfully with our tears. I cannot say with certainty what we will harvest next, but I think the harvest will be a good one. Perhaps our best yet.
Perhaps our next harvest will be laughter.
“Nothing is perfect.”
Those words cut me. They always have. I don’t care if they’re true because everything in me wants them to be untrue. Everything in me longs for perfection though perfect is as cold and distant as the morning star.
Yet here is the lesson I keep learning over and over again: when perfection falls to earth it veils its light in imperfection.
This house is my perfect dream come true, but Lord-have-mercy it is a mess.
Half the windows can’t be opened, whole chunks of molding are missing near the roofline, there is an ominous bulge in the plaster wall along the stairs, and please do watch your step on the porch. You never know when your foot might crash right through.
I wrote these words in Roots and Sky, though I did not know how true they would become:
“… I picture this house, this hilltop, cracked open. Torn right open. And everyone invited to come in. In this picture, it seems that something precious has been emptied out and is being passed around. It is a frightening, exhilarating vision.”
The thing about a broken, imperfect house is that we cannot live in it alone.
When I met Dr. B (“doctor of old houses”), he told me he had prayed God would bring him another old house to work on.
When I called J about our windows and gave him my name, we both held our phones in a state of shock. Apparently, he had purchased Roots and Sky for his wife only the day before.
Jonathan and I always hoped that this place would be a blessing for many beyond our own immediate family. We glimpsed how that could be true our very first Easter when one hundred neighbors joined us to hunt eggs on the lawn. We sent those invitations to a neighborhood of strangers because we were lonely.
I called these local craftsmen because our house is broken.
Perfectly, beautifully broken.
Praise be to God for broken houses, broken hearts, broken bodies, and all the other precious broken things.
Praise be to God for hands that heal and hands that make things beautiful and whole.
Praise be to God for roses.
Praise be to God for thorns.
I write fondly of this beautiful, crumbling old house, but the actual crumbling makes me want to run away crying.
I crop and edit my instagram photos to emphasize beauty, but the truth is often a whole lot less beautiful. The truth is original wooden windows layered with paint. There are rotting sills and decrepit, ill-fitting storm windows. The truth is decay around the roofline soffits. The truth is window shutters so deteriorated I worry they’ll turn to dust if we remove them for repair.
Last week I stood on the lawn with a local carpenter. We craned our necks toward rotted wood three floors up. He heaved a deep sigh and said, “Honestly? I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
He told me some houses are like Hondas. You go to the shop, you buy a new part. But my house was a fancy sports car. Every replacement part costs more and is harder to find.
Is our home the shelter version of a foolish, midlife crisis? Because that isn’t the life I would choose.
The life I would choose is safe and sensible. It’s modestly priced. It’s manageable. Never overwhelming. In this dream life my sister and her kids live nearby. Showing up in the gap (the great and terrible gap) where Shawn once stood, would be easy and natural.
Life would be easy and natural.
In Roots and Sky, I write that “I am living an adventure in stability. Mine is a pilgrimage in one place” (184).
When Jonathan and I arrived at Maplehurst with our three kids (and one on the way), we didn’t only feel called to come. We felt called to stay.
Jonathan is an engineer, I am a writer, our kids tug us in the direction of a dozen different hobbies and interests, but together our life as a family is about place-making. Together, we are cultivating a place; we are tending it, transforming it, and sharing it with others.
I always assumed our faithfulness to this vision would be tested. Perhaps I would resent the chickens and the gardens and wish for a summer-long road trip instead. Perhaps I would grow tired of canning tomatoes, cooking for others, and changing bedsheets for guests twice in one week.
Now, almost four years in and with this house on the cover of a book, it isn’t weariness but fear and desire that have caused me to question all of it.
This house needs more than we have to give.
What if we can’t keep up?
My extended family needs more than we have given in the past.
Shouldn’t we put their needs first?
While I was in Hawaii, someone asked if I would be willing to move to live nearer to Kelli and the kids. It broke my heart to say it, but I said it.
I may be willing, but it still doesn’t feel like my choice. Or, if it is my choice, I will not choose to ignore the voice that has, for so long and so consistently, whispered only one word: stay.
We came to Maplehurst with vision. We knew our future was planted in this place. Yet the strange thing about vision is that sometimes you carry it around like a pair of eyeglasses in your pocket. The weight bouncing against your leg is the only reminder of everything you cannot yet see.
After the carpenter came two craftsmen. One loves old windows. One loves old plaster. They salvage the parts, or they make them with their own two hands.
I stood with one, our necks craned three floors up, and he said, “This isn’t a house. It’s a home.”
And I knew then he saw what I had seen, what I wanted to see again. Not rotting wood or peeling paint, but a home open enough for neighborhood Easter egg hunts and reunions of family and friends. A home spacious enough for nieces and nephews to spend every summer here.
A home powerful enough to draw us all away from the sensible and the manageable and on toward something much more terrifying, much more beautiful, and altogether more abundant.