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Dulce Domum

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. I mean, really and truly. All the other times were holding patterns. For the balance of the summer, I left my favorite jewelry in its travel case and my barrettes and bobby pins in the little brocade bag I’ve had since I was 16. For about six weeks there, between multiple trips, I never even took my toiletries out of the vintage train case that goes with me everywhere. Each time we headed south, towards an island beloved to us both, my heart was a winging bird. And every single time we came home, it was a lump of cold lead. It’s increasingly hard for me to leave this place where I come so fully alive, where I always find something of myself that I left behind on previous visits. In this warm, island world, I recollect my own heart in a way that just doesn’t happen in other locales, and for that I love it with a jealous, grateful passion. Circumstances have required a lot of flexibility over the past several months, but I’ve been emotionally on the edge of my seat—ready to go at a moment’s notice.

I realize, however, it’s not just the preponderance of road trips that’s kept me feeling so flighty. I’ve been a little ill at ease in my own house of late, like an awkward coolness has arisen between us. It’s been a heavy year—not the kind that knocks the wind out of you, mind, but one that wears you down gradually until you wake up one morning and feel like the Little Engine that Can’t. It’s left me bruised: tender in places and sore as a risin’ in others. I’ve tried to process it, work through it, rest through it, ignore it, indulge it—the whole gamut. Mostly I’ve just wanted to get away, though. Life’s been taking it out of me, and I’ve been taking it out on my house.

But when we rolled in from Hutchmoot the other night and bounced down our rutty gravel drive, I was glad to be home. For the first time in months, I wanted to kiss that stubborn old red clay of ours and caress every doorpost and lintel. I wanted to lie down in the yard by the sagging grapevine and let the walnut trees weep golden leaves all around me. I wanted to open windows and doors to envoy breezes of October and change linens and sweep floors. There had been a tilting of perspective, elemental as the shifting of shadows one notices in early autumn, and the light was falling over my landscape in a wholly-fresh-yet-eternally-familiar way. Hutchmoot has meant different things to me in different years—even the year I wasn’t able to come had its own gifts in the way of long-distance fellowship and connection. But this year I could whittle my heart’s takeaway down into one burning idea:

Hutchmoot made me homesick.

And I don’t necessarily mean homesick for heaven, which, of course, is inherent in all homesickness, whether we acknowledge it or not. But I mean homesick for my own bit of earth, for my wonky floors and drafty windows and the afternoon light sifting over my own pastures. It made me homesick for black cats that doze on blankets with me in the yard and the way my sheep gaze up at me with calm, trusting delight when I scratch them behind their ears in just the right way, and for the pearl-white Araucana hen (who made a cameo appearance in my Molehill story last year) who likes to perch on the sill of the barn where the siding has rotted away. It made me want to plunge my hands into garden soil and the kneading of bread and into poetry. It made me want to play the piano and sing songs and read books. It made me want to sit long by the fire talking with close friends and to welcome a lonely soul to my table. Homesick, indeed, for the very things that characterize my life, but which I’d lost hold of in all my late weariness of soul.

At Hutchmoot, I remembered who I am, in the widest sense. I remembered not only to love what I’ve been given, but to choose it, and that the most transcendent things in life are articulated, incarnated, by earthy reality. I remembered that Now and Here are crammed with glory and that sometimes, oftentimes, the best way to unfurl Hope’s banners over the wartorn landscape of life is to make a bed with a sweet expanse of clean sheets and set a pretty table with candles and wine glasses and something green from the yard to which the fragrance of earth still clings. I remembered that we celebrate, declare, revel in what’s Real with real things. I remembered what I reminded myself in last year’s Molehill story: that everything matters. That it’s all that important.

I loved Andrew and Jonathan’s Saturday morning session—they spoke on the glory of God all around us, kindling everything, making everything significant. Andrew really encouraged us to dig into our place, to see it as a unique vantage point where grace intersects with ordinary days, and my heart was stabbed at the thought. “The Incarnation . . . transfigures the whole fabric of life for us and delivers it back to us and us back to it in the seamlessness that we lost at our exile from Eden,” wrote Thomas Howard, and I saw that ideal actualized at Hutchmoot on every side. From legendarily beautiful meals, to candlelight on earnest faces deep in conversation, to music and pipe smoke in the air, I was confronted with the glad assertion that our faith is enfleshed in human faces, human voices, the work of human hands. It’s not some disembodied paradigm too lofty to be sullied with the ordinary stuff of life—it gives that stuff meaning, restoring the bloom of Garden freshness to our endeavors, be they world-class bluegrass concerts or a tune picked out by ear on our own piano at home.

Driving back from Nashville I told Philip I felt like Mole in The Wind in the Willows.

“Of course you do,” he laughed. (That book is one of our best-beloveds; he and I refer to one another as Ratty and Mole, respectively, and for good reason.)

But it was one moment in particular that had caught my mind’s eye: like one of Leif Enger’s “shiny things,” I remembered, seemingly out of the blue, how Mole had caught the scent of his old home in the air one winter afternoon, coming over the fields with Ratty after a day of exploration abroad. He’d abandoned Mole End the summer before for a new life of friendship and adventure, but at this sudden, irresistible appeal, he was seized with a longing that very nearly broke his heart.

Now, with a rush of old memories, how clearly it stood up before him, in the darkness! Shabby indeed, and small and poorly furnished, and yet his, the home he had made for himself, the home he had been so happy to get back to after his day’s work. And the home had been happy with him, too, evidently, and was missing him, and wanted him back, and was telling him so, through his nose, sorrowfully, reproachfully, but with no bitterness or anger; only with plaintive reminder that it was there, and wanted him.

It was not a sermonizing on contentment or even a noble notion of belonging that recalibrated Mole’s inner compass—but a smell. It reminded me of an experience I had back in 2006. At the end of what we now refer to as “The Summer Our House Broke” I called Philip at the office one day and told him that if I didn’t get on an airplane and go somewhere—anywhere—I was going to lose my mind. After months of essential repairs, I was beginning to feel like my house was a physical weight. We’d had contractors literally walking off the job left and right, leaving gutters strewn over the yard and half-scraped clapboards languishing for paint; the roofer had discovered not one or two layers of shingles under the rotten cedar shakes, but five; the dormers had been invaded by squirrels, the original shutters were suddenly leaning at crazy angles, and the guy who came to fix the leak in the attic said he needed to rebuild the pull-down stairs before he’d even consider going up there. Oh, and did I mention that the barn was sinking on one side at an alarming rate?

Philip was as keen to get away as I was, and that very night we went straight to Barnes and Noble, immersing ourselves in a pile of travel books we’d pulled off the shelves at random. At first it was empowering enough to say ridiculous things like, “How about Madeira?” or, “There are direct flights from Atlanta to Bermuda.” But, at length, I lifted a book from the stack and said, “What about Maine?”

After that, we never considered anything else. Maine in September seemed the very cure for this sudden upflaming of adventuresome desire—the very place to run away and hide from our troubles for a while. We duly found a cottage that was so remote it was on an island of its own, reached after miles of mist-shrouded gravel track. Nothing could have suited me more, and for a week, I sat on the rocks overlooking our own secret bay and read Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Thomas Kelly and The Country of the Pointed Firs and basically found my Center again—and my wits along with it. I was so fully present at our little cottage in Maine that I didn’t even let myself think about what was going on at home or what chaos was waiting for us there. I sank into the peace of that place like a tired child and it was health to my body and wine to my soul. I never wanted to leave.

One day, however, in a burst of domesticity, I made gingercake to go with our tea. Such a simple thing, but it filled our cottage with an intoxicating fragrance. I was immediately arrested—plucked, beckoned. Wooed. At the scent of that little cake, my heart was pierced through with homesickness, of all things, and it took me completely off guard. I was overwhelmed, here in this lovely place, with longing for my place. The tide had turned; home was calling me, and I felt in that moment that I could have walked all the way from Maine to Georgia. Barefoot.

I love that it was something as homely as a smell that wakened such fierce and elemental desire in me—just the way it was for Mole that night coming over the fields with Ratty. Tasha Tudor said that scent is the strongest memory arouser, and she was right. But there in Maine, I didn’t just want my own kitchen floor beneath my feet—I wanted the bedrock it stood upon. I wanted the declaration of hope that was bread coming out of my own oven and the incarnate love of polished silver and firelight. I wanted to declare that things matter, everything matters, because Love has come and Redemption tarries not.

Like Mole, I’ve discovered a vein of vagabondry seaming my otherwise quiet existence, and that’s all right. We mustn’t be too at home, even at home. But how grateful I am that, like him, I have such an anchorage in this life.

He did not at all want to abandon the new life and its splendid spaces, to turn his back on sun and air and all they offered him and creep home and stay there; the upper world was all too strong, it called to him still, even down there, and he knew he must return to the larger stage. But it was good to think he had this to come back to; this place which was all his own, these things which were so glad to see him again and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome.

I’ve found my metaphorical anchorage, as well, in this safe haven of friendship and inspiration known as The Rabbit Room. In company of such tremendous souls, I am humbled into hard work and delight and all the things that make up a life worth living—a life worth giving away. Pete and Jennifer and the rest have called things out of me I didn’t know where there. They have believed in me in ways that I could never believe in myself. They have pointed me to back to fairyland and reminded me that the Truth is too lovely not to tell.

And they have reminded me, again and again, in their songs and their stories and their sacrificially sumptuous Hutchmoot feasts, that Eternity isn’t a passive thing, biding Time in some untouchable over-the-rainbow. No—it’s igniting the present moment, burnishing the “gear and tackle and trim” of even our humblest endeavors with a holy glow.

It’s the magic latent in all the ordinary of our lives, and our soul’s sweet home away from Home.

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