Aren’t you bursting with butterflies
on the fourth of September?
Like you’ll have to get on the bus
in your tartan dress, with your lunch box.
Though your body is twenty-nine.
Though your mind is an old thing.
Karen Peris, Beginning the World
As a child, I always felt a sweet rush of excitement, a thrill of unknown things to learn and to do, with the first breath of eleagnus on the air. The silver-leaved shrub would tip out its scent from cups of tiny, hardly-perceptible speckled blossoms, and one late summer afternoon its fragrance would come wafting into my play, faint and elusive, quickening my heart with hints of the yet to come. If I doubted it one day, it was stronger the next. It meant September: school days and cool mornings and new books. And always it pierced my heart with a strange joy.
It still pierces my heart, but the joy is a familiar thing now. Sitting on the front porch, I’ll notice one afternoon that the shadows on the lawn have shifted slightly, that their angle is lower and longer. And just about the time I’ve ceased to look for it, that lovely, winsome scent will come slipping over the pasture, wavering on some slight breeze. The first glancing whiff is cause enough for one of those homely little annual celebrations that make the year a gladsome thing. I smile and close my eyes and think of all the wonderful things I want to do, of the limitless possibility of life. Of all the books I want to read and the places I want to not just see but live in—be alive in—if only on visits.
September does that to me. I want to read and study and learn as much as I ever did. To set goals and make schedules. I want to broaden the borders of my mental horizons, feed my soul upon the wisdom of the ages. Since my schooldays were left behind I’ve realized what tenacity is required to continue your own education beyond the accountability of classes and curriculum. It’s so easy to get caught up in the revolutions of our spinning society, churning out our quota of industry, till we’re much too tired—and too busy anyway—to think of indulging in the extravagance of self-education. But is it really all that modern of a problem? In 1836, Eliza Farrar urged, “Self-education begins where school education ends.” Perhaps the cultivation of the mind has always needed validation, along with all the arts. Perhaps beauty has always striven with productivity.
A few summers ago, during a soulful reading of Sheldon Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy, I found my heart completely taken by the account of the Oxford years that he and his wife experienced: reading by the Thames, having lofty discussions on prayer and Christianity, rubbing shoulders with—actually becoming quite devoted life-long friends with—C.S. Lewis. A fierce longing for all the ‘intellectual pleasures of the senses’ leapt like fire within me, and at the counsel of a wise older friend, I realized that I needed to give place to these sweet desires among all the other loved duties of my happily-married life. In good faith, I used birthday money to order a box full of new books: Dorothy Sayers, Charles Williams, G.K. Chesterton, Madeleine L’Engle. And when they came, I tore through the wrappings and went over them with reverent hands, savoring the anticipation of the riches they held. It was greater than a feast spread before me there on the kitchen table.
Not long after that, my sister called with a Proposition. Barely six months out of college, she was feeling much the same way as I was. She was yearning for the mental stimulation of days not long past and for a companion in her scholarly ambitions. And so she suggested that we convert our standing Friday morning coffee date into a more serious endeavor: what Liz’s boyfriend, Dave, termed Smart Time but what we preferred to distinguish as Study and Reflection.
Thus we took ourselves in hand that autumn, convening weekly over books and notebooks and steaming mugs of something delicious. We started with T.S. Eliot’s Choruses from ‘The Rock’, and moved on from there to the Monna Innominata of Christina Rossetti. John Donne and George Herbert next took their places. Conversation flourished, bearing the fruit of beautiful words and ideas that seemed to enliven the very air between us as they flew back and forth across the table. At times we would celebrate the sheer delight of our endeavors with a Proper Tea, complete with scones and blackberry tarts and cucumber sandwiches, lifting our delicate cups with a respectful air, as if paying homage to our noble undertaking.
By late October we felt inclined to tackle a large-scale project, namely, Dante’s Divine Comedy. It had been quoted from so often by the authors we both loved, referred to with such alluring incidence in the Charles Williams book I had just finished, that we felt it was high time we went to the source. And in our minds—barring the original language—there was none other than Dorothy Sayers’ immortal translation, towering above all others with a brilliance and beauty seldom seen in interpreted works, and a passion of Christian devotion that shot through both notes and text like flashes of summer lightning.
We were quite serious and studious about it. We read every word of the introduction, grappling with the world of the Guelfs and the Ghibellines, seeking to understand the time in history from which this monumental work had sprung. We flipped madly back and forth from the text to the glossary. And we both cherished the disarmingly friendly wisdom of Sayers’ commentary.
It was such a stimulating time—we were often almost giddy over the insights we were discovering amid the allegorical images—that we sometimes got rather keyed up over our discussions. I recall one time in particular when we had met for coffee at the shop Dave’s brother managed. We were sitting in the window talking feverishly, notebooks spread on the table before us and the Inferno bent open on its paper spine, when he sauntered over to see how we were.
He clapped his hands and rubbed them together with his charming smile.
“And what are you two lovely ladies discussing this morning?”
Liz didn’t miss a beat.
“Hell,” was her curt reply with an almost frantic sip of coffee, her eyes still bent on me.
nbsp; I’m afraid he was more than a little taken aback.
“We-e-ll, then, I’ll leave you to it,” he said, edging away with an aspect of attempted nonchalance.
Perhaps we had gotten a little carried away.
But I yet bear in my heart and mind the wealth of those days. The satisfaction of making time in a full life for the pleasures of serious reading. The glad identification in another’s eyes, the widening perception of another’s viewpoint. And the beautiful assurance that the lifelong pursuit of knowledge is indeed a worthy chase. We may not have been at Oxford, spread out on blankets in Christ Church Meadow or studying in the Bodleian. But the riches were ours all the same. And I seriously doubt that at that season in our lives we could have been one bit happier.