On a slow Saturday morning, my oldest daughter, who is eight, brings me a nature craft book, seeking hopeful permission to make something depicted in its pages. Before even taking a look, I roll my inner eyes. Children’s craft books come a dime a dozen, or a mere eighty cents at the local consignment store. Many are boring, or the crafts concepts are weird, or the designs look phenomenal but are so complex or confusingly-written that the books really aren’t much use at all. But then I look where she is pointing, at the craft titled, “Make Your Own Toy Garden,”and my heart leaps into immediate association.
The words of C. S. Lewis, “That was the first beauty I ever knew,” flash through my mind, and instead of hemming and hawing over all the materials we’d have to gather together to make any given craft work—not least the energy and sustained parental attention to bring it to completion—I am nodding, Yes, yes! and grinning like the Cheshire cat. Yes, my girl. You may absolutely make a toy garden.
In his memoir Surprised by Joy, the creator of Narnia describes how, as a young boy, his brother Warnie “brought into the nursery the lid of a biscuit tin which he had covered with moss and garnished with twigs and flowers so as to make it a toy garden.” Lewis says of his brother’s garden craft, “That was the first beauty I ever knew,” and that isn’t a throw-away statement: Lewis’s biscuit-tin moment is not merely a pleasant story about a little boy learning to appreciate pretty things. No, the deep desire for beauty, catalyzed at such a young age by some creative impulse of his brother’s, drove Lewis through his boyhood, adolescence, early adult years, and headlong into his thirties on an urgent quest to quench the deep longing set in motion by that moss-covered cookie container lid.
When I was about my oldest daughter’s age, I had recurring dreams at night. Some were tense or frightening, a handful were pleasant, and one was infused with a beauty so rich I can still sense it. In the dream, I walked through a golden wood, as haunting as autumn, as living as spring. There were elements other than the forest, too: a castle, the sense of mystery, a deep feeling of belonging and hope, and even sorrow—a pervasive sadness that I couldn’t keep staying here in this most perfect place. But above all, the dream was about the woods. I am what some people call middle-aged now. I haven’t dreamed of walking in that wood since I was very young, but sometimes I still lay on the edge of sleep longing for a glimpse of that forest again. One more moment standing among its living branches, its fair leaves. One more deep sensation of belonging, of finally having arrived home.
I cannot say what significant or insignificant lights will illumine the way for my girls, each her own person, with her own path to tread. Rebecca D. Martin
In my waking life, I don’t recall any such catalyzing moment as Lewis’s biscuit tin revelation, though my life was full of woods and imaginative play. One particular school friend and I would wander through her backyard and into woods, across a stream. We discovered turtles living there, and for a while, I’m a little embarrassed to say we decorated their backs with the puffy paint we also used to design our 1980s t-shirts. My eco-conscious husband shakes his head, but at the time, this friend and I were fully given over to the woods and its life, owning the branch-covered space and being owned by it. Later in adolescence, there were southern night skies, heavy with stars and close with heat. There were the glorious sunsets that strike all our eyes, and lead so many of us in young adulthood to wax poetic and worshipful. None of these experiences (save, perhaps, the puffy-painted turtles) are very unique, and I cannot pinpoint, like Lewis, what my first glimpse of beauty was that dug down like a seed into my heart, lighting my childhood dreams and later driving me to welcome each sunset, each night sky, with a longing for more.
For Lewis, the beauty rooted in his big brother’s pretend garden was laid down early in life, an unexpected and long-lasting foundation. And then a series of suggestive moments, each also unplanned—reading a Longfellow Poem, hearing a Wagner opera, and the chance discovery of George MacDonald’s novel Phantastes foremost among them—grew out of that foundation, those roots, until they produced in his adult life a tree haunted by truth and longing that stretched its branches through myth and desire and the hope for a lasting beauty that could be touched and known. And finally, in the fullness of time, what had begun growing inside Lewis as a young boy leafed into life under the sun of God’s truth, which shines down with a great warmth and hope on this dark road between gardens: the hope that we will arrive forever at that truest and best garden someday; the hope that I may perhaps walk through that golden forest again, and never have to leave it.
My two girls, ages four and eight, stand on the sidewalk at the bottom of our front porch stairs, each one bent in rapt concentration over her own miniature garden, soil topped with moss and stuck with fresh fir snips and flowers, on whatever plastic trays my husband could find. They are placing their pieces so carefully, laying out the elements at hand—green leaf, spiky twig, zinnia head, nasturtium bloom—in whatever manner comes to mind, beautiful compositions, because the elements are beautiful, because the minds behind the operations are beautiful, because the Mind behind their very beings is beautiful, and he images his beauty forth in who we are and what we do.
“Come further up, come further in!” cries the unicorn Jewel as Lewis’s Pevensie children, newly arrived in glory in The Last Battle, race with joy and strength and glee towards that bright, first garden that is so much more now than it ever was before. Our home has been fractured and lost, and the journey to the new, even better one, promises to be long and dark. But in the end is that garden, and God himself the light by which all beauty will be finally seen. In the midst of today’s pain, of an oft-felt darkness, God gives these glimpses of glory that strengthen us on our way, that light for us the path that will lead us home. My girls spend the morning subcreating their own small gardens. As a child, I wandered the woods with a friend. “As long as I live,” Lewis writes, “my imagination of Paradise will retain something of my brother’s toy garden.”
I cannot say what significant or insignificant lights will illumine the way for my girls, each her own person, with her own path to tread. It may likely be something other than these childhood garden crafts on this particular weekend morning, something more unique to each of them. But my imagination is backlit with a stirred hope: our God is a sower who plants seeds of beauty and longing in the most unexpected places; he is the grand storyteller who knows just the right moment to pull the veil aside to a vista that strikes into our hearts that inconsolable longing that will not let go. And I watch with eager expectation for those moments of glory that will begin to guide my children home.