I really can’t believe it’s been nearly a year since I’ve written here! Not for want of good intentions, or even ideas, I assure you, but from an utter lack of time. Life has been good the past year—hard in some places and demanding in others—but intensely full. Back in January I found myself staring down a year-long series of hurdles that needed to be cleared: classes and conferences, speaking engagements, papers, smaller trips and extended travel, not to mention completing repairs on our house (which will never be completed, of course, because it’s a house ?) and finishing my Oxford qualification (which I did back in September!).
But I’ve missed this space; I’ve missed chronicling some of life’s most significantly ordinary moments here. More than that, I’ve missed you, the faces behind the sweet comments and life-giving notes over the years. It’s never been my intention to leave this place uncurated for this long (although any of you longsuffering, longtime readers can attest to the fact that lapses are nothing new around here!). Even amid some of my busiest seasons, I’ve always got this narrative running in the back of my mind of how I would tell things to you—how I would try and give you a glimpse of what I’m seeing from my little window on the world; a touch of what I’m growing or creating or caring for; a taste of what I’m reading or concocting in my kitchen.
I miss the way that endeavoring to make others see helps me to see in my own right.
I want to give you this ambered light of a late afternoon in November, rippling over the wavy glass of old windows and pooling like honey on old floors. I want you to catch the piercing sweetness of elaeagnus abroad, couched amid heart-notes of damp earth and fallen leaves. I long to put the soft wool of a friendly sheep under your fingers, or the rough coat of a thoroughly spoiled goat, or the plumy silk of a duck’s wing. I’d love to invite you into the warmth and cheer of a firelit room, or to walk with you over frost-silvered fields, listening together for the first far-off cries of the sandhill cranes.
That’s always been my hope, from the earliest days of this site—to welcome you with my words. Trouble is, I’m rusty. After so many months of academic reading and writing, it’s almost as if I must give myself permission to resume a gentler, more quotidian narrative. And after such a long stretch, it’s hard to know where to begin.
I’m reminded of my grandmother, to whom I wrote long letters, all through my high school years and beyond. She was blind, so her sister, Tiny, would come over and read them aloud. And when it was finished, Grandma would always call me and say, with utmost satisfaction, “Oh, I do love a nice, newsy letter!”
In other words, she didn’t want me to explain my life to her—she just wanted to hear how I was, and what I’d been up to.
(Incidentally, Grandma knew the names, aspirations, and relationship statuses of all my closest friends, and was careful to ask about each of them in turn every time we talked. If that isn’t love, I don’t know what is.)
I also can’t help thinking of the sage instructions handed down to the immortal Alice by the King of Hearts:
“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
A good word for a writer who tends to meander and who feels a little daunted by her task.
And so, in that light, I’d love for each of you to consider this a ‘newsy letter’—nothing more, nothing less; hopefully not too long, and complete with a few pictures. Like I said, it’s been a good year—I would even say a wonderful year, and I would love to give you a peek into it.
(If you follow me on Instagram, some of this won’t be news to you. But, if not, I’d love to see you over at @lanierivester! ?)
This time last year I was anticipating the first Thanksgiving and Christmas back in our house after the fire. It was strange to think that we’d seen a full calendar year of holidays out in that camper (Camp Marah, if you remember). But even though we’d moved back into our house Easter Week, and thrown a joyous “re-homing” party that July—to which we invited everyone who had been a part of this story, from firefighters to contractors to family and friends—it wasn’t until The Holidays were upon us that I really began to feel I’d actually come home. I’ll probably write more about this in the weeks to come, but I was dazed, eager, and, as I laughingly admitted at the time, “pent up”—I wanted to reinstate every beloved tradition all-at-the-same-time.
Opening the box of Christmas ornaments was an emotional experience—everything so carefully wrapped in tissue paper, but not by me. It was strange to think that other hands had unpacked, cleaned, and restored them since I’d last packed them away myself. But it was wonderful to see those small treasures again, so many bits of tinsel and glass all freighted with memories. And it was a glorious Christmas, and I cried, as I always do, when we took the tree down after 12th Night.
In January I resumed my studies after the Christmas break. And in early February we traveled to a farm outside of Savannah and brought home three Nubian goats—a two-year-old doe and a couple of two-week-old kids. The kids, a buckling and a doeling, whom I immediately christened Duncan and Cordelia, lived in the larder for a few weeks—as they were so little, and it was so cold outside, and I was so utterly smitten. It’s a lot of work to raise bottle babies, but I wouldn’t give anything for the delight of it, or the sweetness of the way they bond with you. And I wish you could have seen the faces of our guests at the sound of tiny bleats coming from our kitchen, mounting to hungry screams! We hosted Son of Laughter here for a house concert during that time, and I had to dash out in the middle of the show to warm up milk. ?
Juliet, as we renamed the lovely doe, settled easily into the barn the first night. But the moment we let her out the next morning, she proceeded to scream, as only a Nubian can do. And she did not stop screaming for three weeks. It was unsettling, to say the least. My neighbors were calling to see what was wrong with my goat. And I was calling the breeder, to see if there was anything I could do.
“Juliet’ll calm down,” she told me with a laugh. “Nubians are the teenaged girls of the goat world—she just has to work through her feelings.”
Fortunately for all of us, Juliet did just that. I looked out one day to see her lying in the pasture, snuggled against her new sister, Hermione. No more screams—just an occasional whimper. I read somewhere that we get our word ‘tragedy’ from a Greek word which means, quite literally, “the cry of the goat.” Makes sense to me!
In March we embarked on the long-dreamed of project of restoring our 19th century barn to its original footprint and design. The story goes that in the early 1900s a tornado came through and damaged the barn, after which it was reduced to a center hallway with five stalls running down the southern side. Comparison with contemporary structures, however, not to mention structural evidence, convinced us that there used to be a symmetrical row of stalls on the north side, as well. A leaky roof and foundation issues promoted this project from a dream to a priority, and so we reached out to the one man on earth who possessed both the willingness and the skill to undertake such a job: Danny, our contractor who restored our house after the fire. Again, I will write more about this experience, as it was all so rich with wonder and blessing. For now, I will just say that it was grand to work with Danny and his team once more, and that Philip and I are so very excited about the potential for the new-old spaces. And Philip finally has a workshop!
In between overseeing the barn project (not to mention housing a hardworking crew over spring break), I bottle-fed Duncan and Cordelia, finished up my Jane Austen class, cared for a new clutch of chicks, obsessed over a brand-new brood of ducklings (how have I never had ducks before!!) and wrote two sessions for the Anselm Society’s Imagination Redeemed conference, to which I was honored to return as a speaker in April. There I had the pleasure of presenting a sonnet-writing workshop and a breakout on “The Art of Feasting and Celebration”—both of which were equally challenging and delightfully fun to prepare. The Anselm folks are some of our favorites on earth—we love the work they are doing to reawaken the Christian imagination and to help churches and artists understand how much they need each other, and it’s always a joy to connect with our dear friends out in Colorado.
Back home, it was time to put in the garden, and prepare for a new colony of honeybees, and after that, a bit of breathing space before launching into a Victorian Lit class, embarking on a new writing project, and gearing up for summer travels.
In addition to family vacations and a couple of quick jaunts to the coast, the centerpiece of our summer was a trip to England for a happy cascade of reasons: our 20th wedding anniversary, my birthday, the first-ever Hutchmoot UK, and my final, onsite Oxford class. We had the opportunity to connect with family and friends, linger in pubs with our dear Rabbit Room compatriots, study in the Bodleian, and punt on the Cherwell. I’ll admit, I was daunted when Pete Peterson paired me up with the revered Northern Irish artist, Ross Wilson, to present a session on the mythic imagination of Lewis and Tolkien—Ross is the artist who crafted the bronze sculpture of C.S. Lewis for Lewis Square in Belfast, among other things—but he was one of the kindest, most humble, funniest people Philip and I have ever met, and it was pure joy to get to work with him. A tremendous honor.
Also, I literally met Malcolm Guite on the sidewalk of Oxford—right in front of the Eagle and Child. I would have known him anywhere. Staff-work of the Omnipotence, anyone? My heart, Oxford is a magical place.
Finally, as a last crowning gift, we were able to return to Cornwall, back to the very cottage where, a decade ago, we’d spent some of the happiest days of our lives. To go back, and to find it all waiting for us, just as we’d left it (save for the charming little tea van parked at our beach access)—well, it was almost too much for heart to hold. We walked, picnicked, read, revisited beloved places and acquainted ourselves with new ones (oh-my-goodness—Cotehele Manor on the River Tamar! Quite possibly our favorite National Trust site of all time!)
It all still feels like a lovely, sunlit dream.
As soon as we returned, however, it was time to leap headlong into final written assignments (including the largest one to-date), and at the end of September Philip took me out to dinner to celebrate the completion of my Oxford qualification in English Literature. It was rather surreal to find myself on this side of such an ambition—an intensely demanding, rewarding, challenging, and stimulating experience (which took me 5 years instead of 4, thanks to our house fire), and I lost more sleep over my essays than I’d like to admit. But it was truly a God-given opportunity, and I am so very thankful. This course stretched me in ways I did not expect (much as I expected to be stretched!) and opened avenues of ideas which will inform my work for the rest of my life.
The very next day I had lunch with my dear friend, Jennifer Trafton, and laughed with her about it being the first day of the rest of my life. But we both knew the next deadline approached—Hutchmoot was right around the corner! Pete had asked me to speak on Tolkien’s short story, “Leaf by Niggle”, and I was, you guessed it, daunted. I love that story. But it’s a hard one, and it asks some really hard questions of me, particularly with regards to calling, responsibility, and the oftentimes murky lines between the two. (Again, more on this later, I promise—I’ve been thinking about these questions well beyond the confines of my session, and I look forward to exploring them here.) As soon as Pete teamed me up with my old chum S.D. Smith, however, I knew it was going to be fine. In fact, Sam’s words on art as an act of service and generosity were the most meaningful ones I heard at the whole conference—and that’s saying a lot! ?
It was a glorious ‘Moot, with reunions and kindled kinships on all sides, not mention John Cal’s food! But I was eager to be home again when it was all over, back to my barn and my kitchen, my animals and my little rhythms. It’s always so good to come home in the autumn, just when this place looks loveliest to me, with the hickories flinging out a golden welcome along the drive, and the light so long and poignant across the pastures, and the lavender twilights deepening into crisp violet nights.
Back home, to open fires and soups simmering on the stove and cats purring on any available lap. And, oh, best of all, planning for the holidays.
But first—one last hurdle to clear: a Tour of Homes featuring our own little historic district. I’ll admit, I agreed to it rather grudgingly back in the planning stages. It felt overwhelming to think of hundreds of strangers coming through our house in one weekend. But I truly love this special part of the county and was eager to share it with others. What’s more, I love our preservation group (of which my husband is president), and as the weeks and planning committee meetings added up, I began to develop a genuine bond with the other homeowners.
As it turned out, Philip and I worked our fingers to the bone getting ready for it, polishing off those final, finishing details we’d never gotten around to after moving so gratefully back into our house. I sewed pillows and curtains, and upholstered furniture; Philip carpentered and painted and finished our beautiful mantel in the kitchen. My beloved friend Rachel came to arrange flowers and hang pictures. Dear ones agreed to docent, and by the time the weekend of the tour arrived, we were ready—windows gleaming, candles lit, a merry blaze crackling in the kitchen fireplace.
And everyone was so lovely! Even the security guard got into the spirit of things and became an enthusiastic member of the team—after 12 tours on Saturday he knew the script as well as any of the docents, and by Sunday he was answering questions and ushering guests up the front walk. It was delightful to see some old friends among the crowd, as well as a host of neighbors. One woman came up to me at the end of the tour with tears in her eyes—turns out the floorplan of our house is exactly that of her great-grandmother’s old homeplace in Tennessee, and stepping into the front hall swept her back to her childhood.
“I wasn’t prepared for that,” she sniffed, with a watery smile. By the time she left, I had tears in my eyes, too!
It really ended up being a tremendous amount of fun, and a great way to connect with our community. And when I think what these rooms looked like two years ago, it feels like a legitimate miracle.
On November 15, my contractor, Danny, sent me a text: “Happy Anniversary!”
I knew exactly what he meant, and it made my heart sing.
It meant so much for him to remember that two years ago that very day we began the post-fire restoration in earnest. I was so excited I think I met his truck at the gate! But I’ll never forget the music of saws and hammers and cheerful voices after so many months of silence and desolation. We still had such a long road ahead of us, but the demolition was over—redemption was underway!
And so, this all brings us round to another Thanksgiving Eve—one of my very favorite days in all the year The table is set, there are pies and conserve cooling on the counter, and a turkey (over which I’m absolutely obsessing) thawing in a cooler outside the kitchen door. I’ve been cooking since 5:30 this morning, and I still have a ways to go. But I could not be happier.
And I could not let this day pass without slipping in here to say how thankful I am for all of you, and for the ways you’ve journeyed with me over the years. Your recent emails, notes, comments, and friendly inquiries have made me so eager to resume a more regular chronicle in this space, and I just want you to know that I’ve had you in my heart—whether I actually know your name, or not—as I’ve moved into this most cherished of seasons.
I wish each of you a beautiful and blessed Thanksgiving. And a gentle passage into the holy hush and longing of Advent.
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make His face to shine upon you
and be gracious to you:
the Lord turn His face toward you
and give you peace.