I’ve shared it in this space before, but one of my very favorite Elizabeth Goudge passages comes from the 1936 A City of Bells. The dreamy child Henrietta has just returned from an exciting stint in Edwardian London, and, upon her homecoming, experiences a sort-of regathering of herself and her dreams:
Henrietta, at heart a contemplative person, enjoyed alarums and excursions for a short while only. For her a background of quiet was essential to happiness. It had been fun to stay with Felicity, to be petted and spoiled by all her friends…to have lovely things to eat and to go to the zoo whenever she liked, but it had completely upset her equilibrium and she felt as though she had been turned upside down so that everything that was worthwhile in her mind fell out. She, like everyone else, had to find out by experience in what mode of life she could best adjust herself to the twin facts of her own personality and the moment of time in which destiny had planted it, and she was lucky perhaps that she found out so early…
…she found herself listening only to the lovely silence and it seemed to her that in it she came right way up again and her dreams, that had deserted her in London, came flocking back, so that with joy she flung open the doors of her mind and welcomed them in. Never again, she vowed, would she live a noisy life that killed her dreams. They were her reason for living, the only thing that she had to give to the world, and she must live in the way that suited them best.
Elizabeth Goudge, A City of Bells
With the coming of 2016, a torrent of dammed-up blessing seemed to burst its bounds for very joy and come crashing down upon our heads. We’ve laughingly called it a “pile-on of goodness,” but, in the light of the sorrow we’ve known and the grief we’re walking through now, it’s a situation we’re only too thankful to contend with. I feel like I lost something of myself back in the long, dark wood of Daddy’s illness, and in that terrible plunge into the black ocean of bereavement. Of course I did—a certain innocence, a naivety of death’s finality. And, of course, I’ve gained things in those places I could not have otherwise. Things that will mark me for life, and things that are very, very precious to me. I do not grudge the mercies I’ve been shown.
But I also cannot let myself grudge—or worse, distrust—some of the goodness that’s carrying us along these days. As George MacDonald says, “Good is always coming.” But sometimes, when it shows up, it makes us a little afraid. And, in this case, it’s made me a little tired. Like Henrietta, I’ve needed to readjust myself a bit to the “twin facts” of my (very introverted, very idealistic!) personality and the realities of the period of history in which God has seen fit to place it. And, like my young book friend, I’m feeling the need to recalibrate after a season of sustained “alarums and excursions.”
I’m deeply thankful for abundance of this place, and for the perspective grief has granted. When Philip and I sat down the other night to recount the first half of this year—the time we’ve been able to spend with family and friends, the good news we’ve heard, the unlooked-for and long hoped-for gifts that have fallen into our laps—we were, quite frankly, amazed. What’s more, everything—every day—seems so starkly precious now. Not to suggest that we’re free of care in the least. There are questions and shadows and situations in this life that burden our hearts very much—unbearably so, at times. But it’s good to be brought up short by the reminder that all news isn’t bad; that God isn’t threatened by our hearts’ native longings. That, as Catherine Marshall put it, “dreams carried around in one’s heart for years … have a way of suddenly materializing.”
The winter and spring were a whirl of travel and study. After signing up for a Middle English Literature course at Oxford for the very ignoble reason that the Advanced Creative Writing course I wanted to take was full, I managed to fall head-over-heels in love with medieval culture and texts. Just about every assumption I had about the period was challenged in the most wonderful way, and it was heart-kindlingly delightful to stumble into some of my dearest literary heroes and mentors among all those illumined manuscripts and epic poems—Lewis, Tolkien, Charles Williams, T.S. Eliot, Dorothy Sayers—and to realize as never before just how profoundly their works were influenced by their intimacy with Middle English texts. Hilary term was, in many ways, a budding literary romance for me, and I have not the least doubt that both my studies and my writing will be marked by it henceforth.
In the midst of all this, we gave my bookshop a total overhaul, traveled to Tennessee for the From Death Unto Life conference in March, had our house painted, and heard Joan Baez in concert, among other things. What’s more, back in February, we sailed our new (to us!) sailboat from Florida (where we bought her) up to Georgia (where she now resides most happily). More about this later, I promise, but this maiden voyage was a huge deal for us, inaugurating a new and totally unprecedented season in our lives. She’s an old girl, and she needs lots of love; but she’s beautiful—stouthearted and seaworthy, and we adore her, stem to stern. (I can’t announce her name yet, as we haven’t had a proper re-christening ceremony, but, trust me, it’s perfect.)
In April we were able to spend a few weeks at the coast in the Airstream, working on our boat at the nearby marina. And three days after we got home I flew out for two weeks in Europe. I’ve never taken such a big trip without Philip before (and we’ve never been apart for so long!), but the opportunity to travel to Italy with one of my oldest and dearest friends was pure gift and goodness. I hadn’t laid eyes on her in four years—and what a four years they’ve been! But when I looked up and saw her in the Paris airport it was as if we’d parted only the day before.
Throughout our time in Italy we did what we always do: we laughed until we cried, and we talked until sympathetic tears stood in our eyes. And then we laughed again, because, in spite of all its hardness and brokenness, it really is a lovely old world yet. (We also ate lots of gelato, and bought floppy straw hats, and wandered in silence among ancient terraced gardens clinging to the shores above Lake Como. And whenever we got in the car to go anywhere, we clutched hands and prayed we wouldn’t be killed because, hello, we were in Italy, and I was driving! ;))
“We will look back on this time for the rest of our lives,” she said, as we sat out on our little terrace overlooking a cobbled lane with the shimmering lake beyond, and swallows and bell-song filling the air above our heads.
She was right; one month out, and it already has the tender distance of a dream.
From Milan I flew on to England for a week in Oxford. After the glorious indolence of Italy, I had to hustle to keep pace with a brimming schedule of meetings and lectures and libraries. But it was glorious in its own right. I’ve often called Oxford the city of my heart, which is entirely true. It holds a sacred, scarcely articulable magic for me, haunted as it is by the memory of men and women who have influenced me most profoundly in my faith—the shining ones whose words have called forth latent longings in my heart and whose “lively lives in Christ” have assured me of things I had always hoped were true. I stumble into my heroes around every corner in Oxford, which is almost unbearably poignant at times. On my last full day, I skipped a very appealing lecture on “Music in Shakespeare” to wander along the sun-dappled shades of Addison’s Walk at Magdalen College, one of C.S. Lewis’ favorite footpaths. I love imagining Lewis there, thinking his long thoughts as he paced the very ground beneath my feet, sorting imponderables into disarmingly simple prose.
No one has expressed how I feel about sharing spaces with my great ones like dear old G.M. Hopkins:
Yet ah! this air I gather and I release
He lived on; these weeds and waters, these walls are what
He haunted who of all men most sways my spirits to peace.
(Endearingly enough, I felt the very same way standing in the dim aisle of the Oxford Oratory, where Hopkins was once curate. Of all poets, he most sways my heart to joy.)
A muddy little byway leading off of the main walk led me to a stone bench thoughtfully placed before the gate to the Water Meadow, and there I sat for a solid hour contemplating the view of flower-sprinkled mead and golden spires beyond. I thought about the adventures behind me, the confidence that had grown with getting myself from one European country to another, the staggering opportunities that little University Card had afforded me in Oxford. And I thought about what I was taking back home with me: presents for Philip, of course; silk scarves for our mothers; a pair of geeky little “9 ¾” earrings for myself. But so much more than that—I was carrying a new clarity on some very important issues, a refined sense of calling, a clutch of answers to specific prayers. And I had an injunction, a clear and loving commandment that had been whispering itself to my heart through all the challenges and delights and contemplative moments of my travels:
In other words, I must keep allowing myself to be thrown into situations and opportunities in which I am completely over my head. I must keep letting my limits be pushed, embracing the utter disquietude that often (usually, always) accompanies a genuine heart’s desire. I mustn’t allow fear or self-consciousness or inexperience to tether me to the dock when God is longing to breathe wind into my sails. No matter how old I get, I must never allow complacency to masquerade as contentment. Contentment is a lovely thing—a holy thing, in its proper expression. But it must never become an excuse for disobedience.
I had an unmistakable confirmation of my calling while I was in England. A host of deeply meaningful moments which I never could have engineered added up to a freshened sense of God’s personal and very particular love. And they pointed indisputably in the direction of my Obedience. I’m still making space in my heart (and life) to articulate this great verity, but I know that it’s time reclaim some of the ground that sorrow and weariness have taken; time to evict self-consciousness (yet again) and laugh fear in its ugly face.
In other words, it’s time to get back to my desk.
I’ve been looking forward to the summer as a bit of a breather after the wild ride of the winter and spring. But I’ve also been yearning towards something else, leaning like a plant to the sun. I want a rest, but I want a challenge, too. I love all the excitement of passports and suitcases and opera tickets and term papers (yes, I’m a total nerd), but I’m ready to recalibrate a bit, trim my sails, if you will. In the spirit of a lighthearted contest I undertook several years ago, I’ve decided to commit to a little personal dare over the next several months: to sit at my desk and to keep words flowing for exactly one hour, every day, six days a week. I realize that this doesn’t sound like much, but it’s more than the absolute nothing I’ve been writing lately (and academic writing doesn’t count—not that it can be less creative than other forms of wordsmithery, but it comes so hard for me it’s not the playful romp I both need and want right now). And I know from experience that a short daily commitment to anything can be surprisingly productive. An hour of drivel can open out into a sudden vista of insight; a habit makes space for magic to happen. As the incomparable Leif Enger told us at Hutchmoot a few years ago, “Persistence is the landing strip of the Muse.”
I don’t have a lot of high-falutin’ goals (okay, maybe I do, but I’m trying not to weight this sweet new enthusiasm with a burden of outcomes); I’m just remembering how to write for fun again. And the only way to do that, of course, is to write for Love.
Bless you if you’ve borne with me through this wandering post. Even as I’m writing it, my heart warms with wonder and gratitude that there are people out there who actually care enough to show up here and read my ramblings; hearts in which my words find safe haven. I feel like I need to close every post with a very misty-eyed “thank you.”
Under the Obedience,
The folks who put on the From Death Unto Life conference (billed as an artistic preparation for Holy Week), have graciously made the audio available for free! If you’re interested, you can find a link to the session I shared with my beloved friend, Jennifer Trafton. It’s called “Creativity as a Spiritual Discipline.”
Also, I’m writing this post from our sailboat as the sun is dipping low over the marshes, flooding our cabin with amber light. I’m just starting to think about supper, and Philip just turned on a fantastic Dinah Washington record. This song came on, and it absolutely warmed the cockles of my dreamer’s heart. And it made me think about this post by my my dear Sarah Clarkson that pretty much changed my life (resulting in the above-mentioned session.)
*”Not a day without a line,”–the motto of the Art Students’ League in New York.