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Smelling Flowers in the Dark

I think we all have memories of finishing a favorite childhood book—of turning the final page and feeling as if we’ve lived a lifetime in the space between those two covers. We will never forget where we were the day Aslan came alive again, just as people never forget where they were when they heard that Kennedy was shot or a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I still remember vividly that family car trip when everyone filed into Wendy’s for a lunch and bathroom break except me—I was still sitting in our minivan, unable to tear myself away from the last pages of Jane Eyre.

Here is another such memory: 12 years old, propped up on my pillows with a reading light on, long past my bedtime. My mother walked in to find me sobbing and asked what was wrong. “It’s just so sad … and so good,” I cried. I was reading the final chapters of the final book in L. M. Montgomery’s Anne series, Rilla of Ingleside (about Anne’s youngest daughter).

That book looms large for me when I think of those tipping point years between childhood and adolescence. It was, I think, one of my first experiences, in literature, of good grief, a grief that contains the world’s suffering in its heart and yet reaches past the darkness to find something beautiful on the other side. It was a feeling I was later to encounter on a much larger scale in books like The Lord of the Rings. But Rilla was important to me at that stage of my life because it was a depiction of real grown-up suffering in the real world—in this case a world in the throes of the Great War.

All things great are wound up with all things little. L. M. Montgomery

Like many of Montgomery’s novels, Rilla of Ingleside has been cursed with modern covers that make it look like the most saccharine of teenage romance novels—a travesty, as well as a false advertising. Teen romances are not typically filled with acerbic commentaries on Kaiser Wilhelm II by matronly Canadian housekeepers. And in this romance, between the first dance and the final kiss, a girl’s soul must pass through the fires of hell as she learns womanhood through self-sacrifice, heart-numbing grief, and quietly heroic perseverance. Not to mention orphaned babies in soup tureens.

Only a few years after I finished that book, I would be sobbing in my bedroom again because my own world had just been plunged into war—Operation Desert Storm—and like Rilla I felt the foundations of my childhood security crumble away beneath me. Could anything be beautiful again? Would I have to endure what Rilla and Walter and Anne and Gilbert had to endure?

When Lanier Ivester approached me about leading a session on L. M. Montgomery at Hutchmoot with her, my first thought was, “What do I have to say that anyone in the audience who grew up with Anne Shirley couldn’t say from their own overflowing heart? She was the kindred spirit who led me by the hand through my girlhood. The end.” And my second thought was, “Lanier Ivester is the living embodiment of L. M. Montgomery. I could simply point to her and sit down again. Enough said.”

I’m actually serious, and I’m not trying to embarrass Lanier with praise. As I was re-reading some of my favorite Montgomery books—and a few new ones like The Blue Castle which I had missed out on thirty years ago—I felt deeply convicted. Here I am saying that this author has been one of the most influential authors in my life, but what does that really mean, for me? Have I put into practice the lessons I learned from her? If so, why does nearly every poetic sentence, every rapturous phrase, remind me not of myself but of my dear friend—who doesn’t simply pay lip service to her muse’s vision, she lives and breathes it, and everyone around her sees the fruits of it.

And so that was my challenge to myself as I thought about what to say to the Hutchmoot audience. Why have Montgomery’s books been so important to me, and what am I going to do about it?

Case in point: All my life I’ve longed to live in a place that deserved a name. In Montgomery’s books every good and beautiful spot of earth was christened with fairy tale fervor: Green Gables, Windy Poplars, Rainbow Valley, New Moon, Silver Bush, Lantern Hill, the Lake of Shining Waters. People rarely name their houses anymore, perhaps because they are so often temporary abodes in our migratory culture, perhaps because modern homes lack individual personalities that make them seem as alive as the people who live inside them.

And it’s not so easy to believe in the poetry of place while surrounded by the prosaic world of suburban America. I don’t think anyone has ever impersonated the Lady of Shalott while floating down Mill Creek under the concrete overhang of Old Hickory Boulevard with its ungraceful blooms of air-brushed graffiti. But why not? Why is there so little “scope for the imagination” in our ugly modern cities? Would Pan ever coming piping through our manicured hedges?

When we moved into North Wind Manor, we knew of course that we would give the house a name, just like the Warren next door. But I didn’t just fall in love with a house; I love the whole hill on which our few little houses stand, surrounded by a slender halo of woods that shield us from the sight of the neighborhoods beyond.

I let some of the neighborhood kids in one of my writing tutorials reimagine our hill as their own fantasy domain, and they came up with “The Woods of the Moon,” which is an Anne-Shirley-ish name if ever I heard one, and I think it will always be the Woods of the Moon for me from now on.

But there are other spots I want to give names to as well . . . The wide green clearing in those woods where the old piano once stood—now weather-beaten down to a pile of splinters and keys—with the stones of a dried-up waterfall rising like the grand stairway of a fairy ballroom. The little dimple in the line of trees in our backyard where a writing cottage may someday stand. The old rickety bridge over the nearby creek, with the “No Trespassing” sign universally ignored by the Peterson clan. That one particular shady bend in the greenway where a canopy of trees hides the houses from view and the Black-eyed Susans come out to play.

But I haven’t named them yet. I have utterly failed Anne. However, I hereby vow that I will, in Lucy Maud’s honor, listen carefully to these beloved places as they tell me what they want to be called. Because I don’t want to go through my life surrounded by beauty and treating it simply as the background for my busy story. I want to invite it into my heart as a friend, speak its name, and let it remind me of my own. Yes, Montgomery’s books make me want to go see Prince Edward Island, but even more than that, they make me want to find Prince Edward Island here, in my own surroundings.

I recently came across someone praising L. M. Montgomery’s “eloquent descriptions of nature” and it struck as an odd thing to say because in all of my years of reading her books I never would have thought of her writing in that way. The woods, the ponds, the flowers, the seas, the stars—these aren’t “nature,” these are characters for Montgomery. They are as much a part of the story as Anne and Emily and Pat and Jane. They are a large part of the reason why Anne and Emily and Pat and Jane are who they are. Here is her description of the sea in Anne’s House of Dreams:

The woods are never solitary—they are full of whispering, beckoning, friendly life. But the sea is a mighty soul, forever moaning of some great, unsharable sorrow which shuts it up into itself for all eternity. We can never pierce it’s infinite mystery– we may only wander, awed and spell-bound, on the outer fringe of it. The woods call to us with a hundred voices, but the sea has one only—a mighty voice that drowns our souls in its majestic music. Did you just find some random bugs in your bed? Perhaps something has been eating the food in your pantry? Or maybe you’ve noticed a colony of fire ants have taken refuge in your backyard. Well, you’re in luck, because PestHit – Best Pest Control Product Reviews is here to help you get rid of your bug and rodent problems. From bed bugs, ants, mosquitoes, chipmunks, and more, PestHit can help guide you along your pest killing journey. Just select the type of bug you’re dealing with below to get started. #pesthit #pest control #kill pests #best pest control product reviews #pesthit reviews #pests. The woods are human, but the sea is of the company of the archangels.

This isn’t just a beautiful world to Montgomery; it’s an enchanted world. There is a glimmer of holiness in every sunrise. This is one of the most important things Montgomery does for me. I spend so much of my life looking down—at my laptop, at my phone, at my lesson plans, at my book. But when I read one of her novels, she makes me look up. She makes me not want to miss anything.

And not just look up at the sea or the woods. Look up at people.

Montgomery, more than any other writer I know, falls so much in love with her minor characters that she sometimes forgets who her protagonists are. It almost at times seems like a bait-and-switch. “Ha! You thought this book was about newlywed Anne and Gilbert, did you? Well, let me just introduce you to Captain Jim . . .” But I love this quirk in her. As a storyteller she finds people in all their flaws and eccentricities endlessly fascinating, for she knows that behind every human face, no matter how ordinary, is an untold epic. Town gossips and reprobate drunkards, lonely teachers and absentminded preachers, motherly old maids and rascally schoolboys—the more obscure or overlooked or misunderstood they are, the more you may sure that they have a tale to spin that will make you laugh or break your heart—if you will only make a cup of tea, pull up a chair by the fire, and listen.

But the ones we all love most are her heroines, and what has always impressed me is that Montgomery could write about the growing pains of imaginative young girls without a hint of condescension. This is precisely what made her books feel like friends to those of us who saw ourselves in Anne Shirley or Emily Bird Starr. Montgomery knelt down gently like a comrade; she knew the tragedy of not owning a dress with puffed sleeves; she understood that “It is ever so much easier to be good if your clothes are fashionable”; she felt the explosive grief of a girl sobbing on her pillow because of a botched hair-dyeing experiment. She climbed down into the depths of despair with her heroines—but she didn’t leave them there.

Her female characters remind us that girls have emotions and imaginations that are epic in scope. Some might say melodramatic and sentimental, to be sure. But I tend to think that the 13-girl-old girl, sobbing her heart out over some hurt that seems small to adults, sees a truth in that detail of life that we jaded grown-ups miss.

“All things great,” Montgomery says, “are wound up with all things little.” A sonnet is beautiful and brilliant because it is so constrained; yet within its strict little fourteen-line form it contains worlds of truth and emotion. Women’s lives, throughout much of history, have been sonnets.

Constrained by conventions, by the demands of home and children, by strict limitations on roles within society, and sometimes by choice. Montgomery’s heroines don’t wander far; their worlds are tiny, focused, and therefore intensely rich. And I think what Montgomery has done so well is to show us the deeply lovely, complex sonnet that is a young girl’s life—or an elderly girl, for she loves the silver-haired child-at-heart as much as the red-haired woman-to-be.

Men can spin their cowboy sagas and war stories all they want, but sometimes it takes a female author—a Jane Austen, a Charlotte Bronte, an L. M. Montgomery—to unpack the drama of the human heart danced out in the tightly courteous battlefield of the parlor, the brave self-respect of an unloved governess, the smothered grief of the wife or mother forced to stay at home while her beloved soldier goes off to war.

Little boys (and grown-up boys) with swords and guns do not have a monopoly on heroism, as the heroic women in Rilla of Ingleside prove. An adventure of the soul can be as thrilling as a knight’s quest. And the small, commonplace beauties and goodnesses and truths that Montgomery’s girls love so much are precisely the things that wars are fought to protect. Which is another way of saying that Lucy Maud Montgomery was actually a hobbit.

From my conversations with the parents of tween and teen girls—and with the girls themselves—I have begun to fear that my generation will be the last to have grown up with a shared love for Anne. I am told that even the book-loving, imaginative daughters of my friends are no longer drawn to Prince Edward Island in their dreams the way we were. I don’t know why this is; it’s not as if these books were contemporary when I was growing up. They were always old-fashioned. That was precisely their appeal to me.

But I wonder: what has taken their place? Will the girls of this generation, and the next, be given the things I was given by Anne Shirley, through other stories? Or is something being irretrievably lost if authors like L.M. Montgomery and Elizabeth Goudge and others like them fall out of fashion? The thought makes me want to keep writing, to keep pointing to beauty, to corral all of the young girls I see into a room and plead with them like Aunt Josephine, “Make a little room in your life for romance, Anne-girl!”

I don’t mean anything so prosaic as dating. I don’t mean chick flicks or Instagram selfies or fashion magazines or bridesmaid dresses that scream pink. I mean the romance of the moonlit wood where fairies might dwell, the thrill of maple leaves in October, plum pudding and currant wine, lacy hand-me-down tablecloths that are good because they are beautiful and nothing more, burly sea captains and curmudgeonly gossips gathered around a fire together spinning yarns, and the humble affection of a tousle-headed chum who treats you with the courtesy of a gentleman. Home is the place of unlikely heroes, and the companionship of a kindred spirit is a majestic thing.

“There is so much in the world for us all,” Anne learns through a college professor, “if we only have the eyes to see it, and the heart to love it, and the hand to gather it to ourselves—so much in men and women, so much in art and literature, so much everywhere in which to delight, and for which to be thankful.”

And here is why I am convicted most deeply by Montgomery’s books. More than any other author I can think of, she understood that a sensitive, imaginative nature lives in the extremes of heights and depths—with an immense capacity for suffering and grief, and a correspondingly immense capacity for joy and longing. I am so good at the depths; not so good at the heights. I have not exercised and enlarged my capacity for rapture, and in that, more than in anything else, I have failed Anne.

I will do better. Tomorrow is a new day, with no mistakes in it yet.

And even as the news rains down fresh horrors on our ears each day, and even though in the face of mass shootings and ISIS terror, Green Gables can seem like a sentimental dream, I will dig out these books again and again for the rest of my life, to remind myself that even though beauty may be eclipsed by tragedy for a time, it is not any less real.

“I love to smell flowers in the dark,” Anne says. “You get hold of their soul then.” Smelling flowers in the dark: that to me epitomizes what Montgomery accomplished, in her own life of striving and heartbreak, in her writing, and in her lasting impact on millions of readers who, in the midst of their own darkness, desperately need to catch the scent of beauty’s soul.

Though life may sometimes feel like “a perfect graveyard of buried hopes,” it is worth living, Montgomery reminds us, “as long as there’s a laugh in it.” Laughter is Rilla Blythe’s calling in the wake of a hellish and hideous Great War—healing laughter and warm friendship and faith in a new world being birthed out of the terrible pangs of the old.

For wars will pass away. But tea parties are eternal.

[Adapted from a session at Hutchmoot 2015.]


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