On the second-to-the-last day of September, in the year of our Lord 2011, I came into possession of a hill in the English countryside.
I marked the event that evening with all due solemnity and appropriate honors. My husband and I had ostensibly walked out in the late afternoon to watch the sunset from a neighboring slope, but with a few quick modifications, and all the young joy of a first-time hill-owner, I adapted it into a celebration. I cut a few swinging strands of ivy that hung over the rutted path we took from our cottage, and as soon as we had spread our blanket on the grassy prospect, I sat down and began weaving them into a coronet. Philip grinned a little ruefully as I studded it with tiny thistles—the bane of any pasture-keeper’s existence; the amethysts and jasper of the woodland lapidary. But when I opened our tea caddy and produced, not the expected and well-traveled thermos and tin cups, but a bottle of champagne, his smile registered genuine surprise.
“This is a momentous occasion,” I said gravely, attempting to loosen the cork and then passing it to him in a sudden fear of flying consequences. “It’s not every day you come into property.”
In the twelve years that Philip and I have been married, there are only two New Years Eves we’ve spent at home. Once, early on, we had my parents over for a formal dinner. We toasted with champagne cocktails and set off a few decorous little fireworks, and Daddy chased Philip around the backyard with a flaming Roman candle, laughing all the way. The other saw me in bed with a cold, asleep well before the stroke of midnight. Every other year we have been in company of lifelong friends, gathered about a familiar hearth for an evening as comfortable as it is refined.
But this year I was too sick to go out.
[Editor's Note: Lanier Ivester wasn't able to make it to Hutchmoot this year, but while we were convening in Nashville, she stopped by the original Eagle and Child Pub in Oxford, England where she sat down in the Inklings' Rabbit Room and wrote this post. We read it aloud during "The Telling of Tales" at Hutchmoot.]
Oxford is a golden city. The yellow Cotswold limestone from which it was raised seems to have drawn into itself the warmth and light of all the sunny days it has ever known, so that even in the rain it glows like a watercolor of Turner’s. But in the last rays of a vanishing day it awakens to a radiance so aureate it will literally take the breath away, if not the heart along with it, while a crystalline fire kindles in every leaded pane and the cobbled streets, emptied of tourists for the day, grow quiet and begin to remember their past. Poets and martyrs, theologians, painters, and storytellers have all haunted these edifices for centuries, and the time-blackened passages between them are crowded with invisible shrines and unofficial monuments to greatness.
When Philip and I were in Paris a few years ago, he took me to the Annick Goutal shop on the Rue Bellechasse to buy me some perfume. With a characteristic twist of City-of-Light-magic, we stepped off the bustling little street and into what seemed for all the world like a nineteenth-century parfumerie. The walls were lined with open shelves painted buttery-cream and touched with gilt, all bearing the same simple offerings of iconic ivory boxes, and in the center of the tiny store stood a mahogany display table, ranged with ribbon-topped bottles of scent like debutantes lined up for a dance.
It’s rare that people pay a first visit to our old farmhouse without asking if we have ghosts.
I can hardly blame them; I wondered the same thing the first time I came here. It’s certainly haunted with its own past, standing there under its trees, brooding gently over vanished things like a wise old woman holding tryst with memory. It arrests me every time I pull in the drive.
If my husband is present I cut him a sly smile. We love to creep each other out occasionally in the night watches—an impishly easy task, with all these shadowy corners and creaking floorboards—and then laugh at ourselves the next morning. But he knows that I’m not fool enough to tempt fate with a bald-faced commitment beneath the very roof I have to sleep under that evening.
We were driving through downtown Atlanta, off on literary pilgrimage in the wind and sunshine of March. Just she and I, a sisters’ spree, making holiday in the middle of the week for a day trip to Flannery O’Connor’s Andalusia.
I think I was already feeling intimidated, haunted by the great one’s ghost, as it were, for as I threaded the umpte-eleven lanes heading south out of the city and fiddled with the AC, I kept prattling nervously about ‘my little manuscript’. It seemed so absurd to call it a ‘book’, even to her, who knows my own soul. Flannery wrote books. I scribbled things in secret.
“Would you stop?”
I cut my eyes over at Liz in surprise.
[Note: Today is Johann Sebastian Bach's 326th birthday which brought to mind this piece that Lanier wrote last year referencing, in part, Bach's use of the letters S.D.G. If you've read it before, it's worth re-reading. If you missed it last year, you're about to experience an extraordinary essay.--Pete Peterson]
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