Today marks yet another important date: it is the 100th birthday of Sheldon Vanauken, author of my favorite book of all time, A Severe Mercy. Having honored dear Davy with a sonnet on her illustrious centennial, I could not bear to let this day pass without acknowledging our great chum Van in like manner (though his gift is in the form of a bit of free verse). Reading A Severe Mercy not only incited an absolute volcanic eruption of latent longing and desire in my life, it breathed a loving affirmation that at once broke my heart and healed it. And though our copy has been nearly read to pieces over the years, I cannot so much as crack the cover without a burning rush of that original joy. This poem refers to Van’s final and ultimate surrender to Christ, some twenty years after Davy’s death, a “return to the Obedience” which led to the writing of this immortal book.
Happy Birthday, Van. We owe you the greatest debt. Look forward to telling you all about it over a heavenly pint someday.
When once that gallant head went down
In fealty unforsworn,
And rebel heart consigned to Mercy’s cause,
Love’s triumph shook the earth for such proud prize
And heaven stooped to smile.
Knighted with a poet’s sword,
Branded by a lover’s seal,
The beauty of your breaking pierced the world.
There is no such thing as art. There are only artists.
Ernst Gombrich, The Story of Art
I had that driven home after attending The Rabbit Room’s first-ever gathering in the flesh, saw it living and breathing, laughing and even getting choked up at times. Felt its electricity tingling in my veins and an answering call piercing my heart. In company of some of the most passionate music makers and story tellers and painters and theologians I am ever likely to encounter, I tasted the good bread of Community and drank deep of the wells of Truth.
I was privileged to sit in on lectures that made me dizzy with excitement and stimulation, ranging from the works of George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis to Annie Dillard and Flannery O’Connor. I took copious amounts of illegible notes and I told secrets to friends of an hour. I laughed till I cried and I made a fool of myself more than once (always a good thing) and I felt the sweet sting of tears in my eyes as God plunged His words deep with that pain that heals and sings.
And I saw Gombrich’s maxim above excavated and built up by an even greater truth, a higher, nobler beauty:
“There are no such things as ‘artists’ and ‘non-artists’,” Russ Ramsey told us, sitting at the front of a small classroom with candlelight playing almost symbolically off his face. “There is only lit and unlit.”
Demandez l’étoile matinière et prenez aussi votre amour terrestre.
My heart in grief’s a stricken dove which leans
O’er hidden nest of given things, mild head
Inclined unto dark mercies, awful means,
Whereby kind Love woos living from the dead.
For Joy, my pinioned soul takes leap in art
Of blackbird’s liquid song, and blood-stained wing
The blessed wound I bear from Love’s trained dart:
Old earth but veils the heaven which I sing.
From Love itself my frantic spirit flees
In Fear, a maddened gull that won’t be tamed
By peace, but lights on waves of doubt the sea
Casts up, or flies in storm’s black face. Unshamed,
Love sends my lover, in whose arms this wild
Bird’s snared, content to be by love beguiled.
This is what joy looks like:
It looks like walking over the lawn in that time
of late winter’s striving with early spring,
when afternoon and evening brush fingers in passing,
throwing careless glances over shadowed shoulders,
and all the wealth of the sun’s bullion lies heaped in treetops,
mounted and piled among far-flung boughs like plunder, forgotten—
or abandoned—in sudden flight. (Boys once sought a piece of this prize,
training their darts towards all that opulence, aiming to see an arrow
gilded before falling to earth once more, transfigured.)
All earth holds its breath, waiting, for that one, clear, cold note;
for the ache of the thing that is surely coming; for the nativity of the world.
(You have forgotten to wait for it, sitting indoors with your fingers
interlaced, or kneeling to blow on bloodred coals yet smoldering upon a bed
of grey ash. But now you remember, stung alive by that keen air,
bearing tinctures of delicate things for all its rude handling—violets and tiny white feathers
and bits of blue shell at the foot of a tree. Forgetting takes time, but
remembrance is the matter of a moment.) It is then, when you have finally
opened your eyes that the miracle steals on tiptoe, lifting with smallest hands
the bank of heavy cloud which has sullened and saddened the earth all day,
throwing out in one radiant glance enough glory to christen the world. Thus known
and named, all things sing back themselves for sheer gladness, in flashes of
birdsong and music of color: Glory to thee and all thanks to thee, O Namegiver!
In that light, all is canticle and verse; all is wild tumult of praise: leaping serum
of veining sap and homing dove and bright cacophonous rooster’s crow!
And yet, the bird in the hedge falls silent, checked in his mad virtuosity
by that strange creeping splendor decanting itself like summer wine, casting a holy blush
over every living thing. It is in that moment, poised in perfection upon
the very doorstep of eternity, that you catch the echo of scarce-dreamed-of
desire, resonating down darkened vestibules, haunting the ventricles
and chambers of your heart. For one searing instant, you prize past all equal
the spangling of sun-shot tears trembling from the naked branches; the rising incense
of mist is more costly than gold, and that one aureate wisp caught among
the dark tresses of the pines far more precious—and then you know:
You are more alive than flesh and bone could ever hold;
more vital than body and blood and thought.
You are made for more
rapture than one life can contain.
On November 22 of last year, I lost my voice. I’m not talking laryngitis; I mean my words. They scattered from me like a covey of quail, and I knew, standing there amid the ragged stubble of a waning year, that there was nothing I could do to call them back, nothing but lean into the cold wind of sorrow and wait. Words, like all winged things, have a life of their own; believing in their return often feels like believing in the hope of spring when the whole world is laid barren and birdless by the ravages of winter.
But on November 22, I was too tired and sad to care if they ever came back. That was the day that my dog Caspian died, and some fundamental innocence in me died with him. The past two years have just about broken my heart, not by the ruin of a single blow, but by the slow-growing burden of accumulated sorrow, of grief upon grief that has seemed relentless at times. But when Caspian was diagnosed with cancer last spring, the very day we were supposed to leave on a long-awaited jaunt to the sea in our ’62 Airstream, it was too much to bear. I couldn’t bear it, in fact: when I heard the diagnosis coming out of the specialist’s mouth and saw the tears gathering in my husband’s eyes, a great, black cavern seemed to open inside of me and I felt myself falling into a bottomless place haunted by all my worst fears. The vet droned on unintelligibly about how there was nothing that could be done and what to expect in the coming days, but my soul was crying out in silence: Jesus, catch me! (He did, by the way. Strong arms shot out of that darkness and held me so tightly I could almost feel them about my physical body. I am here, that grip told me, in words beyond words.)
“How long?” Philip said in a voice that sounded nothing like Philip’s.
[Adapted from the Hutchmoot 2013 session of the same title.]
Last week, I penned a sonnet, and it was seriously one of the hardest things I have ever written. My husband all but dared me to do it, throwing down the bright challenge as we walked on the beach one night, and I accepted it with a mixture of excitement and terror. Excitement, because there’s nothing like the wordplay of poetry that wakens all my sensibilities and helps me distill those feelings that “do often lie too deep for tears.” But with the thrill came the cold fear that accosts me every single time I sit down to write—the mute despair that not only could I “not do it again”, but that I never had been able to do it in the first place. I confided to Philip that I’ve always felt I couldn’t say I wrote poetry until I’d tackled the sonnet—and I’m so afraid of sonnets. The exquisite discipline of the form shines a terrible light on my insecurities and inadequacies—so terrible, in fact, that I don’t think I would ever have attempted it if my husband hadn’t nudged me to try. I simply don’t believe that other people struggle with creativity the way that I do. I imagine every other artist that has ever lived simply gushing creativity in an endless torrent of words or notes or color—no matter what they insist otherwise. When I hear someone say what a struggle it is for them to create, I can’t help but imagine this huge, universal conspiracy to keep me from giving up.
At any rate, I got to work—what else is there to do? I dumped all my images and impressions and candidates for metaphor into my notebook and then I alternately thought and determinedly did not think about it for a couple of days. Tuesday morning I sat on the seawall with a blank page—and a suddenly blank mind. Panic fluttered, raven-like, about the fringes of my mind and that pernicious despair started to rise, drowning sweet ambition in a flood of self-consciousness. Who was I kidding? What did I have to say? And if I somehow managed to corral these wild horses of emotion into measureable verse, of what use could it possibly be to the world?
I was mad at God.
It was the 30th of November, a date by which I’ve traditionally completed all of my Christmas shopping, planned my holiday meals, decked half the halls and basically thrown myself heart and soul into the preparations for the season I love best. It’s not that I’m so organized: it’s just that where Christmas is concerned I can scarcely contain my joy. The excitement starts percolating somewhere around about Halloween, and it’s all I can do to hold myself back until after Thanksgiving from draping tinsel over the mirrors and crowning every picture in the house with a branch of holly. I love Christmas so much that I cry when we put the tree up and I cry when we take the tree down—and that never a day before Epiphany. I get so tender over the season, in fact, that the very angle of the light on a late December afternoon is enough to bring tears to my eyes.
But that year I just wasn’t up to it. I was worn out with sorrow, with protracted waiting and exhausted hopes, crushed under a disappointment that felt like a physical blow. Not exactly a recipe for a happy Christmas. And it was all God’s fault.
I told Him so, standing at my window, looking out over a diamond-shot dawn that tangled itself among the velvety arms of my favorite cedar tree and suffused the rising mists with a pale golden light. Christmas, with all its gilted joys and tender associations, would only make things worse.
“I can hardly bear the thought that my Christmas rose has such a thorn.”
When I was at Hutchmoot, people kept asking me if Philip and I lived at the beach. I thought they were teasing at first. “Yeah, we do, don’t we?” I’d reply with a grin. But after the third or fourth time I started to wonder. Sure, we don’t live that far from the coast, and we go there as often as we can. This past summer we were blessed with the opportunity to spend a lot of time by the sea in our darling old Airstream trailer, a 24-foot home away from home, and, consequently, pretty much everything I’ve written over the last six months has made some allusion to the ocean. But it got me thinking. And Hutchmoot itself got me thinking more.
When we came back from Nashville, I did something I haven’t done since April: I unpacked.
My sister and I are very different. Liz is a painter; I am a writer. She looks like my mom; I look like my dad—as long as you swap the noses. Liz can slay a room with her wit; my gifts lie more along the lines of the brilliant faux pas. I live on a farm and she lives in a Bohemian apartment in Brooklyn. If my wedding was a page out of Anne of Green Gables, hers was 1930s Hollywood glam. But our differences can be deceiving. Beneath the more obvious elements of taste and temperament—and a few stubbornly held opinions—we share a bedrock-level sympathy that is not only integral to the fabric of my life, it’s a continual delight and surprise. From the days when we were children playing “covered wagon” in the back hall, strewing our westward passage with doll funerals and Indian raids, to more recently effecting a rather indecorous after-hours escape from Hyde Park (who knew that they actually locked those big iron gates at midnight?) we have shared an imaginative perspective that is almost preternatural at times. (It used to alarm our friends, I think, when, out of the blue, one of us would catch the other’s eye in the midst of an unrelated conversation: Liz would lift an expressive eyebrow; I would twist my mouth thoughtfully. “Do you really think so?” she’d say. “Yes—yes, I agree,” I would reply, thus settling a question which no one else realized had been raised.)
I love going places with my sister. Liz walks as fast as I do, maintaining an unbroken stream of conversation all the while. She knows what to say in the face of a lovely view or a breathtaking masterwork of art—and, perhaps more noteworthy still, she knows when to keep silence. She can take a great city on foot without flagging, but she senses just when a nice little pick-me-up is in order. And she loves to people-watch as much as I do—which is a lot.
“I think that people are the greatest fun…”
—Bryan MacLean, Alone Again Or
I love people. Really, I do. But sometimes I don’t like them very much.
It was the last night of family vacation. We weren’t actually going home in the morning—Philip and I were heading to a neighboring island the next day for a little birthday weekend add-on. But it was the end of something: the culmination of a week of pure pleasure in a lovely house by the sea with our Ivester-variety dearest ones, and I was a little sad. The tall windows were dark; the swimming pool was a sheet of glass between the main house and the pavilioned wing in which Philip’s and my room was located; the outdoor hibachi grill, in almost constant use for a family of 13, had been cleaned for the last time and the colorful beach towels had all disappeared from the iron courtyard railings. Everyone else had already gone to bed—but I needed a bit more, an extra measure of savoring, as I always do after my very happiest times. Philip knew this, sensed it instinctively, I think, as I never seem to handle endings very well without some practical acknowledgement of my joy—even a few moments’ quiet conversation.
We sat out under the pavilion together, he and I, watching the great silver barque of a moon travel a swath of starry sky and listening to the incessant whisper and retreat of the waves on the shore below. Our house was on something of a point, near the mouth of an inlet on one hand, with a great stretch of beach on the other, so that whether the tide was in or out it always had something of the quality of a fortress. The tide was out tonight, but the beach was deserted.
“What was your favorite thing?” I asked Philip sleepily. “Tell me your best moment.”
He was silent for a moment before obliging. Then he returned the favor of the question he knew I’d been wanting him to ask me all along.
“What about you? What was your favorite thing?”
Some days are just kind of stupid.
You sit there early, hands cupped around a half-mug of cold coffee, feeling that the world beyond your own bed is exhausting. And perhaps just a little bit insupportable. Vacations, among other things, will do that do to you.
You haven’t the heart to consult the best-laid-plan you made so cheerfully the night before. (And well past your bedtime, I might add.) You know it’s just way too long.
And too optimistic.
You contemplate last night’s dishes crowding the sink and you very sensibly decide to take a walk. And then you come right back inside, beaten and subdued by August itself before you’re fairly out of the gate.
Some days are just like that.
Some days you have to close the cover on your screaming day planner and walk past the dishes like they’re not even there. You have to drive with the top down and the music up. (Kind of loud.) You make an impulsive date with a dashingly handsome man you are wildly in love with (and who happens to be your husband).
Some days there is simply nothing to be done but to put on his favorite dress and sip champagne over a stolen lunch.
Some days you need to stop and look at the things you have loved all your life like you have never seen them before. And remember why you love them.
Some days you need a cold dog nose under your hand and some days you need a soft blanket and a fluffy book. And some days you need a spritz of fancy perfume.
Today was one of the latter.
I have always been a five year-old about birthdays. I love them, and I get very excited about celebrating the day that God in His mercy chose to give me life. The most ordinary things seem tinged with magic, and I pray I will never grow out of that. But I am also very awed by the shining, unwritten gift of a new year. There is something a little untame about the enormous possibility that stretches before me, and a deep unction rises to take responsibility for my choices in the spinning round of days to come—to name my year with purpose and intention and love. To mark each age with significance and deep attention to the subtle ways in which God is bringing me into my own, as a woman and as His child.
So, while all birthdays are important to me, this one seems especially so. Today, I enter the final year of my thirties. I’ve joked with Philip about how I’m turning 39 for the first time, but, in all seriousness, I’m not bothered a bit about growing older—I love the increasing freedom that comes with the passing of years, and the gradual shedding of non-essentials—be it the shedding of ideas or possessions or insecurities. My thirties have been a remarkable decade. I have had adventures and opportunities my 29 year-old self could not have imagined. It’s also been a quietly turbulent decade, in the good way that all true soul-growth is turbulent. I have been stretched in ways that sometimes seemed past endurance, and I have found God more loving, more tender, more unreasonably patient with me than I ever would have let myself hope He would be. My joys, too, have deepened into this widening space within, so that I begin to feel that all the tugging and pulling and broadening—which can be so uncomfortable in the moment—has only been God’s secret design of making room for even more joy.
Like a white gull, caught in the cross-purpose of an opposing breeze,
I hang, suspended upon grief and this searing joy. Weightless, effortless,
aloft on these mercies, I hover ‘twixt heaven and earth, love greater even
than that which wrings my heart burgeoning beneath these wings.
Such gift, this graceful breath, inkling of the ageless I was made for. Ah, then!
unbound at last from Time’s enslavement, my heart will be home in Undying.
A liberated thing, from which sorrow has chastened the last temporal taint,
feathers sheathed gold in the sacred fire of that morning light. No tears shall spring
but they are summoned by joy, when Love’s sweet satisfactions are complete.
Not yet, but the holy warmth of this early sun, stealing with summer gladness
over my upturned face, swears that such things will be—this and the shout of gulls
and the salt tang of sea, hinting verities scarce imagined. And while I wait—
here where yesterday rests most thankfully and tomorrow sleeps unthought of—
my soul is awake, keeping time, so lucid it might be heaven itself.
Here, where hope first found wings, hope rises anew, replumes, resurrects immortal.
Wounded with love, exultant in sorrow (for sorrow, after all, only means one has loved)
my cloistered heart rekindles to the day, inhabiting eternity in this present moment.
One great pulse of wings, one mighty cry of desperate joy, and I am off,
Last summer, I had the great privilege of interviewing one of my heroines, Andi Ashworth, upon the occasion of the re-release of her book, Real Love for Real Life by the Rabbit Room Press. You can find the interview here, and I really urge you not only to avail yourself of the gentle wisdom of her replies to my questions, but to purchase and read and share her book as well. (And while you’re at it, check out Janna Barber’s heartfelt review.) Andi has a perspective on caring as a lifestyle that is truly revolutionary. She brings the most practical expressions of love—things that might otherwise be considered mundane or insignificant—out into the light and shows the opportunity they hold to communicate the love of God to the people in our lives. Her words were such a gentle challenge—at once a cup of cold water and a bracing tonic. I’ve said this elsewhere, but the offering of this book to a weary and care-starved world is a gift of care in itself. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Reading this book and conducting this interview have made me think deeply about the application of these things in my own life. I’ve been affirmed down to a soul level in things I’ve intuitively felt, but have received very little cultural validation in. And I’ve been challenged to remember the preciousness of the lives that so beautifully intersect with mine, and to keep thinking about how I can love them in creative, concrete ways. But I have also been reminded, in a very poignant way, of the manner in which I’ve been on the receiving end of all this practical love. I am quite honestly overwhelmed at the ways the people in my life have communicated God’s love to me. They have been the hands and feet of Christ in the moments of my greatest need.
This post has been brewing for a good long time. Ten years, as a matter of fact.
What follows is something of a personal retrospective, probably not of the least interest to anyone but me. Truthfully, it’s one of the most difficult things I’ve ever written—how to confine an important decade to a few paragraphs?—and more than once I’ve nearly given up the attempt altogether. As it is, I’ve refined it to death, wrestling over that balance between candor and abstraction (and taking myself far too seriously in the process). And for all that, who knows but that in the end I’ve succeeded at nothing more (or less) than an egocentric ramble. That’s not my intention; what I long to do is memorialize what God has done in my life, to mark this passage with an altar of remembrance and observe an epoch with deep attention and gratitude. Love compels me to try, while joy tugs, colt-like, against the reins of my limitations. At any rate, I’ve given it a go. The very fact that I feel obliged to open with such an accounting may serve as warning enough of the wanderings to follow…
It was ten years ago this Maytime that God started something in my life from which I’ve never recovered—and never want to. Anniversaries are important to me, and this May I’ve been blessed with ample time to take a long, backward glance. To remember where I’ve come from; to measure my charts and check my course against where I’m going, where I want to go. For three weeks I have lived by the sea—really lived, in the way I first began to dream of a decade ago. I have put countless miles on my trusty Schwinn (Holly Golightly’s the name), traveling daily the same beloved paths, stretching over a gold and green salt marsh or winding beneath moss-hung oaks, each one a familiar friend. Kingfishers have been my comrades, and snowy egrets, and red-winged blackbirds with their liquid music like flutes coming through water. I have worn my hair in a ponytail and the same gorgeously-comfortable, perpetually-sandy, linen cargo pants (except on the days when I’ve donned my favorite, lucky writer’s frock: perfect shade of sailboat blue and works well on a bike) and I’ve pedaled off with a laptop in my backpack and my wicker bicycle basket stuffed with books and blanket, seeking some sunny refuge where I might warm the bones of my soul and weave a few words into the bargain. (I’ve literally followed the sun all over this island and I’m brown as a nut in consequence—all but my face, which I slather daily with SPF 20. Yes, I’ll admit, it looks a bit odd. I’ve also mastered the art of riding a bike with a tall Darjeeling in hand, for what it’s worth. What would we do without our cups of tea?)
And at the end of the day, we’ve stretched on the sand, my husband and I, or on a sun-gilt verandah in rocking chairs, sipping cocktails and reading books—or talking of books and the dreams they have kindled.
What is it that Thoreau said—“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book?” I certainly can. I have often thought that God all but placed a book in my hands that He wanted me to read, something that would unravel a bit more of the fabric of unexamined belief about Him and the world and other people—and myself. But ten years ago this May, I know He did. It was as if the Holy Spirit propelled me bodily towards the bookcase and pried open my fingers to receive a volume off the shelf. It was a book that had been sitting there for four years, ever since Philip and I had been married, and it was the story of a great love. But one of the lovers did not survive the book. This much I knew. And I did not want to read it.
When God gave it to me, however, I did. (We did, rather, for I firmly believe that this is not a book to be read by one spouse and not the other.) And it completely changed my life.