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,
At first, the wilderness appears wide open. It is unexplored. Who knows what wonders wait to be found.
When we first moved to Florida, we were eager to explore new roads. We caught glimpses of water – river or ocean – and we pressed on. But the river always remained hidden behind endless waves of Spanish moss. The ocean was a mirage, a blue spot on the GPS we could never quite reach.
The real ocean hid behind grassy bluffs or gated mansions. Park your car and pay your fee, and you’d find it. But it was not open to the wanderer. To those with a car full of kids who only wanted to drive and believe they were free.
Wilderness roads are straight roads. To meander without a plan across a network of straight lines will only lead to disappointment. There can be no circling back in some surprising way. There is only that moment of disenchantment, that moment when you agree it is probably best to turn around.
The wilderness looks like a spacious place. You cannot see the edges, no matter which direction you look. But there is no real spaciousness here.
In the wilderness, you wander but you are also hemmed in.
I grew up with the siren song let’s go for a drive. When my parents couldn’t take our squabbling for one more minute, they piled all four of us in the station wagon.
Where are we going? we always asked.
Crazy, my mother always answered.
Years later, heading out for a long drive became our favorite date. Especially in the spring. In the spring, you never knew when you might round a bend and find yourself slowing, slowing, and finally stopping to watch the wind dance in a field of bluebonnets. We’d park your pickup truck by the barbed-wire fence and roll down our windows.
All the better for watching flowers dance in a field we happily admitted we would probably never find again.
The roads are my favorite thing about my new home. This promised land.
They are narrow and curvy. They force a slower pace. You must stop at every bridge to let the car opposite cross first. You often find yourself caught behind horse-drawn buggies or herds of Sunday cyclists.
In this place, there is no scenic route. There are only the familiar roads, with their familiar beauty, and the turns you haven’t yet taken. The eighteenth-century farm you’ve never seen. The historic blacksmith shop you never noticed. The “ancient burial ground” half-hidden behind a brilliant maple tree. I lose miles wondering who might be buried in this “ancient burial ground.”
The daily chore of Kindergarten carpool is a thirty-five-miles-per-hour roller coaster. Gypsy Lane carves a path through the forest. Schoolhouse Road curves along the edge of a steep hill. I can see sheep and a fast-running creek down below.
Old stone barns and shabby farmhouses and that one crazy place with the alpacas. Every single day I forget where I’m headed.
Every drive, every errand, feels like a Sunday afternoon drive in God’s country.
On the hard days, and in the hard places, I sometimes resist gratitude. To “give thanks in all circumstances,” can feel like shutting my eyes. Like pretending.
But giving thanks has nothing to do with renaming a prison a spacious place. It is only the grateful acknowledgement that God never leaves us behind. He always comes back for the lost sheep. He always makes a way.
These days, I am looking back. I am remembering and giving thanks.
Thank you, Lord, for the hard, straight roads that led me here. Thank you for the wilderness.
Thank you, Lord, for the Promised Land. This spacious place where every road leads somewhere new.
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.
When I was young, dreams were easy. I wanted to marry that one boy from the church youth group. I wanted to live in the big city. I wanted a PhD. Later, I wanted (desperately) to have children.
In those days, dreams were like stair steps. One after the other, they fell into place. Some were realized easily, some only after the proverbial blood, sweat, and tears, but they were all my dreams. I could take full credit for the dreaming, and I thanked God when my dreams came true.
Then the day when I exhausted my carefully hoarded stash of dreams. I had thought I carried an endless supply. I imagined I was Mary Poppins reaching deep into her carpet bag. But mine was only an ordinary duffel.
I remember it precisely. I sat at my desk with one dream heavy in my belly and another being typed out word by word on the screen of my computer. I was preparing to defend my PhD dissertation. I was preparing to give birth to my third child. That day, I opened my Bible and read these words: “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4).
I knew then that I had come to the end of my own dreams.
I wasn’t unhappy. I had plans, though they were disconcertingly vague. I wasn’t ungrateful, though I was nine-months tired and dissertation stressed. The problem was that I read the phrase desires of your heart but saw only emptiness. I was no longer a dreamer. Had I ever been?
A few months after the baby and only days after graduation, we moved to Florida. There I learned that heart desires are born in God’s own throne room. I also learned that the door to the throne room is usually found in the wilderness.
Florida was my wilderness, my wandering place. It was the place where my own small plans were broken and then burned. And what was revealed in those flames? Of course. Desire.
We Christians profess selflessness (though too often we practice it as badly as anyone might). But in our profession we come to fear desire. Isn’t it wrong to pay such close attention to my own heart? Aren’t desires like sirens tempting me from the Way?
And so, like some foolish Ulysses, we stop up our ears, we tie ourselves to the mast of our ship, and we focus only on our plans. I will do this today. I will do that tomorrow. When always God is calling us to let go of our plans and listen to his voice.
It is so like the beautiful siren song, but it is calling us, not to our destruction, but to life. The abundance of the wide-awake but dreaming life. A life that will look differently for each of us. A life dreamed up for us alone. Dreamed up by Love and planted within us in the form of desire.
It might take getting lost. It might require fire. It might look like a struggle on the deck of a storm-tossed ship. But the thing that is left is worth everything. Every tear. Every question. Every dark, uncertain day.
The thing that is left is a God-breathed, God-given desire. It reveals the self you were made to be. It turns your gaze toward the One who made you.
The realization of this desire is like coming home after a long, uncertain sea voyage. But this is a home you could never have imagined. It is fully beyond your own capacity for dreaming.
I know this is the way of it when I find myself behind the wheel of a pickup truck. Yes, me. The same me who traded the flat fields and cowboy hats of Texas for skyscrapers and snowflakes. Here I am, driving a truck loaded with mushroom compost and baby trees.
Sitting high in my seat, the view through the tunnel of August corn is washed in golden, late-day light. I can just glimpse a far green hill. It is topped by that perfect couple: a white farmhouse and a red barn.
An Amish family clip-clops by behind their horse, and, for a moment, I cannot fathom how I have come to this place. This beautiful, never-before-imagined place.
And that is a heart’s desire. It is a place prepared for you. A place that satisfies your heart like nothing else.
It is a dream come true, though, walking your own way, you would have never dreamed of it at all.
“The kingdom of God is where our best dreams come from and our truest prayers. … The kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home …”
– Frederick Buechner, The Clown in the Belfry
“When God seems silent and our prayers go unanswered, the overwhelming temptation is to leave the story – to walk out of the desert and attempt to create a normal life. But when we persist in a spiritual vacuum, when we hang in there during ambiguity, we get to know God.”
– Paul E. Miller, A Praying Life
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