The first three months of this year were filled to bursting with good things.
School resumed with Hilary term in January, and although I was only taking one class (Italian Renaissance Art), it was every bit the challenge that my previous Oxford courses have led me to expect. I’m required to take half of my credit hours outside my chosen discipline, but as long as these hours aren’t English language and literature, the choice is entirely mine. (Is it just me, or does the British university system make Much More Sense? Pursuing certification in English Literature, I’m not required to fill out a ‘core’ of math and sciences–unless I want to. Which I don’t. Liberal Arts girl here, all the way!) It has been fascinating to see, however, that courses chosen out of pure interest and curiosity have dovetailed into one another with a beautiful coherence. What could be more apropos, after an enchanting (I would even say life-altering) plunge into Middle English Literature, than to spend the following term studying Classical texts from which Medievalism took much of its energy? Or to look ahead after this foray into antiquity, towards the flowering wealth of the Renaissance, only to discover (contrary to all assumptions) that the post-medieval mind did not supplant the ideology of its forbears as much as build upon it?
In the meantime, I had a number of writing deadlines to meet, not to mention one of the highlights of my year: the opportunity to present at the Your Imagination Redeemed conference in Colorado Springs, an event co-sponsored by the Anselm Society, The Rabbit Room, and the C.S. Lewis Foundation. The whole experience was incredible, from the joy of preparing a talk on a topic about which I am heart-poundingly passionate, to the greater joy of delivering it to a roomful of people whose resonance embraced me with sympathy and warmth. My subject was the office of the imagination in the perception of truth, and the ways that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien sought to “re-enchant the world” via the power of story. My friend Andrew Peterson was the featured guest, and it’s always a gift to hear him in concert. But there were many other gifts of the weekend, as well, friendships new and old to celebrate, and Philip and I returned home with overflowing hearts.
As soon as we touched down in Atlanta, my sights were set on the last assignments and final paper of term. I spent my days studying by the fire, as my blooming South succumbed to a snap of blackberry winter, and the spring gales moaned about the chimneys of the house. It was a lovely interlude, a last revel in all the comforts of hearth and home. But by the second week of April, with term wrapped up and a greening world outside, I was ready to clean out the fireboxes for the season and turn my attention to the garden.
I mentioned here what a ruin my little kitchen garden has become in the past several years. But with a suddenly open calendar and a suddenly April world, I absolutely could not wait to get outside and start pulling weeds. Characteristically ambitious, what I’d slated for a one day project turned into a two week undertaking–but I can say without hesitation that they were two weeks of pure bliss. Each day I devoted multiple hours to weeding, digging and double-digging, re-stacking rocks, amending and mulching. My arms ached and grew lean; I developed a giveaway farmer’s tan, and worked some legitimate stains into my all-too-pristine overalls. I cleaned out the garden hive and gave it a fresh coat of white paint to welcome a brand-new nuc of honeybees later this month, and Philip helped me repair torn rabbit netting and tighten all the loose fence pickets.
In short, I worked as I have not done in ages, and it felt magnificent. Each night, I fell into bed utterly exhausted, and each morning I sprang up, eager to do it again. After so many months of “brain work,” there was a primal joy to this physical labor that I had completely underestimated–or forgotten.
More than mere satisfaction, the happiness I knew in those dear, weary days was akin to reclamation. Recovery. I wasn’t just being reacquainted with my garden and my place–I was being re-enchanted. I can hardly convey to you the delight with which I recognized the very force I’d lectured on at the Anselm conference at work in my own life—it was like a huge exclamation point to the weeks I’d spent preparing my talk. Re-enchantment is no slight thing; it’s a falling in love, willingly, with wide open eyes. As I worked in my garden, with my cats coming and going, my peacocks snaking inquisitive heads around the fence posts and my dogs rolling in the sunlit grass nearby, the sweet mystery wrung my heart, again and again. The Nubian goats Hermione and Perdita bleated from the barnyard for ear-scratches and treats, and my small flock of sheep ambled across the pasture, luminous in the late afternoon light. A brown thrasher caroled from the holly hedge, and his song sent arrows of joy through my heart.
Hovering over all this gladness was a distillation of scent sweet enough to bring tears to my eyes: the once-a-year April enchantment of wild roses, honeysuckle, and lowly privet hedge. From my youth it’s wakened me to the “dearest freshness deep down things,” igniting ideals and longings so native I would not be me without them. Tasha Tudor once said that scent is the strongest memory arouser, and I often think about that with the fir and gingerbread of Christmas, the woodsmoke of autumn, and the wild passion of gardenias in high summer. Familiar fragrances don’t just remind me of things I love—they remind me who I am. And all during those days in the garden, this particular fragrance had been wooing my senses and courting my sensibilities with an influence so potent it made my heart ache. The scent of April will always anchor me in every dream of place-making and home-keeping I have ever known. It surprises me each year, sweeping me off my feet, as it were, with the essential romance of the everyday.
Suddenly, with the first hint of such sweetness in the air, all of this seemed so terribly important: the cats and the bees and the sheep; the tomato plants I’d nurtured from seed; the green-shadowed lawn with its invitation to rest and recreation, and the summer magic of moonvines twining up the garden fence.
Place matters, because the lives it shelters matter—and the great gift of stewardship filled my heart with a burden of praise.
But thankfulness was not the only energy at work. I realized with a pang that all my joy was sailing wing-and-wing with something that felt very much like—homesickness. Upcoming departure pricked my heart; after a year of longing towards a Maytime sojourn on our beloved island, we were leaving in a few short days. And for the first time ever—between the prospect of my island and the prospect of my home—I felt torn.
“I’m having a terrible time leaving my garden,” I told my neighbor. “I’m going to my favorite place on earth—and I’m already missing my place!”
If there’s anything I’m learning about the vagaries of longing, however, it’s to lean into them, not fight them. So I determined to enjoy the fact that, not only was the exile from my island coming to an end, this brief exile from home was a sweet thing in itself, endearing commonplace things with a hint of their rightful value. I decided to celebrate the two-way pull as a symbol of dual-citizenship, a mark that I do, indeed, belong elsewhere, and that when my heavenly home is finally revealed it will feel as familiar as the bare wood of my kitchen floor and the sun-warmed sand of my island.
My neighbor was sympathetic. She agreed to babysit my plants and send me updates on all the green and growing things I’d miss, and I was so grateful. I know few people who honor the ordinary miracles of life like she does; I expect to spot more wonder through her eyes than I would through my own.
Nevertheless, it was a wrenching. On the morning we left I all but kissed my tomato plants goodbye. And when we pulled out of the driveway, a merry caravan of tow vehicle, Airstream and roadster, I glanced back at my garden through a sudden mist of tears.
It was a pleasant drive. A couple of hours from the coast I put the top down and turned up the vacation mix a friend had given us. The sun was warm on my face, the music was fun, and in the rearview mirror I had a view of the Explorer with Philip and Bonnie Blue in the front seat and the Airstream trundling happily in its wake.
Just south of Savannah I came along the first stretch of salt marsh. The cordgrass flashed green and gold in the late afternoon light, and the water sparkled blue in the distance. I smiled back at the landscape as into the face of an old and very dear friend.
All at once I was assailed by scent, a fragrance so much a part of me that it rang out like a shout of joy, rousing a host of beloved memories and associations. The tang of the salt marsh is an unfailing tonic, kindling my summer heart with a desperate gladness. I felt the last vestiges of winter-weariness fall away, and the light-hearted instinct of a homing bird.
I had left my roses and honeysuckle, but I was coming into jasmine and magnolia and the strange, sweet mustiness of live oak—and all of it had shaped me in indispensable ways. I would not be me were it not for this place—any more than the place I had left behind.
Joy flowered as I sped along, and as we passed the little gatehouses at the entrance to the causeway, I threw both of my arms into the air with a flourish, as much for Philip’s benefit as my own. I saw him shake his head in the rearview mirror, and I could tell that he was smiling from ear to ear.
My marshes tell me I am home—home in a different way, but home all the same.
Isn’t life the loveliest paradox?
(And is ‘odoriferous’ not one of the most delectable words in the English language? I’ve been rolling it around in my mind for days!)