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Staff Work of the Omnipotence

I gave in to a cold a few weeks ago. It had been pursuing me for days, ever since we got home from Hutchmoot, but it finally caught up with me. This meant, among other things, that we did not go to the boat for the weekend, and we did not go a friend’s breathtaking annual autumn feast—both of which made me sad. Instead, we piddled around the house on Saturday, and called it an early night with a couple of ghost stories by the fire. On Sunday, Philip set up the vintage deck chairs under the filtered shade of the water oak in the backyard, and I installed my pajama-clad self in one of them, equipped with reading glasses, a plaid wool throw over my legs, a rotation of cats in my lap, and a book in my hand.

Thus accoutered, I proceeded to do something I haven’t done in I don’t know when. I read. All Day Long. From cinnamon-laced morning coffee, to my late afternoon tea tray, I stayed right in that chair feasting on words, gulping them, devouring them, pausing to savor the taste of them, then tucking in again with increasing appetite. I was aware of the dogs romping in the sunshine across the lawn, and my husband reading a history of Jekyll Island close at hand; every now and then my senses would thrill to the poignant scent of eleagnus, wafting down on a light breeze from the corner of the property where it thrives. Occasionally, I would glance up to smile at my sheep ambling across the pasture, or to honor the warmth of the sun on my face and the blue October sky beyond.

But, for the most part, I lived in that book. And being that the book in question was Diana Glyer’s Bandersnatch, I lived, essentially in Oxford.

Bandersnatch is the story of the creative collaboration between C. S. Lewis. J. R. R. Tolkien, and the rest of the Inklings, and it caught me up, carrying me along on a ride of unmitigated delight. I could not put it down until I had polished off the very last word—start to finish, I read that book in one sitting. This is significant to me on many levels, primarily because I just don’t read like that—or, at least, not often, and certainly not lately. Truth be told, this is the first book I’ve read straight through—the first book I’ve read easily—since Daddy died last summer. Sure, I’ve written a few heartfelt reviews, and I’ve done a massive amount of reading for school, but the mental effort was disproportionately titanic and I could only digest small chunks at a time. It took a dear friend and mentor to point out to me back in the summer that my “lack of focus” was more symptomatic of grief than I’d given myself grace for, and her words were permission to ease up on myself a bit. But life has been moving so fast lately, and my thoughts along with it, that I’d started to fear this distractibility was becoming chronic.

I’ve always been the kind of girl with five to seven books on the bedside table. Philip built me a bookcase in the Airstream so that I could travel with a few shelves of my favorites, and the designated “library corner” of our sailboat cabin exceeded its bounds almost immediately. There’s nothing I love more than to spread a quilt under the walnut trees in the backyard and meander through a stack of titles that happens to strike my fancy, dipping alternately into story, essay, poetry in turn. Trouble is, for the past year and more, it’s been just that: dips. I’ve been splashing my toes in the water of words, running my hands through currents of grand ideas and noble thoughts, without diving in and swimming around for long, lost periods of time. (More often than not these days, I fall asleep on the blanket before I’ve made up my mind which book to sample.)

My studies, and the connections they are opening in my mind, are a breathlessly exciting pleasure (I’m not kidding—my heart literally pounds faster when ideas flower, expand, meet one another), and I’m deeply grateful. But it’s sobering to realize that were it not for recent papers and assignments and deadlines, I wouldn’t have been reading anything. That actually frightens me a bit, to consider how a habit of grief becomes just that—a habit.

I didn’t set out to reign in my mental habits yesterday, or to progress from one stage of grief to another (grief doesn’t get easier, for the record, it only gets different). I was tired and sick, and I had an idle day and an intriguing book to hand. That was all. (Full disclosure #1: I’ve been looking close at my days lately, shaping my vision with hard intention, identifying the requirements for the kind of life I want to live, and one unavoidable fact that has arisen is the need for a weekly Sabbath; to honor the limitation of a six-day work week, not just with smiling lip-service, but with actual, physical and mental rest. Crazy, I know. Full disclosure #2: When I selected my ‘intriguing book’ from the shelf, my fingers visibly twitched over three or four alternatives, ‘just in case my brain got tired,’ or in case the book I committed to—through no fault of its own—failed to hold my flock-of-rice-birds attention span. It was with no small effort that I pulled back my hand and walked away with only one book. The book I was actually going to read.)

And thus, the hours passed in joyful immersion. From time to time I would look up from the pages of Oxford to jot a note or two—there was just so much about this book that I wanted to remember and act upon. It made me want to read more, and it made me want to write more, which is highest praise for a book, in my opinion. (And it also nudged me gently with the thought that perhaps my recent and paralyzing difficulty in stringing words together has as much to do with not reading as it does with grief. I mean, Jane Kenyon was right—if you want to write good sentences, you have to stuff your head full of good sentences. Or something like that.)

This dear book came into my life at just the right moment, breathing upon the embers of my own ambitions, underscoring my resolve to connect more faithfully and intentionally with my own little tribe of sub-creators, as Tolkien called us. It made me want to grab my (ridiculously talented) writing partner’s hand and say, “How can I help you get your words out into the world? What can I do?!”

It made me see afresh the value and necessity of healthy critique in the writing process—still so hard for me to stomach after all these years, even with the encouragement I’ve received. But it was extremely eye-opening to realize just how actively the Inklings engaged with each other’s work—they didn’t just sit around puffing on pipes, spouting off gorgeously polished manuscripts. They rolled up their sleeves and helped each other build their books. They praised; they critiqued (sometimes brutally); they wrote reviews; they shared unfinished works. Think about that for a moment: there was a time when The Lord of the Rings was just a jumble of elven lore and hobbit talk. When the main character was named Bingo, of all things. Times when Tolkien had no idea where the story was going; times he gave up altogether.

But C. S. Lewis wouldn’t let him give up. For something like 17 years Tolkien’s friends walked with him through fits and false starts and hair-pulling dead ends. I have always stood amazed at Tolkien’s genius, marveled at his high, pure, perfect language, and the epic nature of his story arc. And I’ve always pictured the story flowing out of him in an ordered stream of prearranged brilliance, a clear, crystal torrent of cause and effect and deep meaning.

But that’s not how it was at all. No matter how perfect the end result, the writing of it was literally a mess. And it would not have been written at all without the express investment of C.S. Lewis and the accountability/feedback/audience of the Inklings. Tolkien struggled mightily to finish that book, in the face of enormous self-doubt and discouragement, fearing that even if he did finish it, no one would publish such a thick tome in the days of post-war paper shortages. But he had a band of brothers who believed in him. And that made all the difference.

Not coincidentally (is there really such a thing as coincidence?), Diana Glyer was the keynote speaker at Hutchmoot this year, and I smiled and wept all the way through her speech. It was one of the most well-crafted talks I have ever heard, delivered with such warmth I think everyone in the room felt like she was talking to them alone. I was deeply touched by the story she told about the Inklings collecting scraps of paper for each during WWII and post-war scarcity, bringing them quietly to the meetings for whomever had need. That was one of the most beautiful pictures of Christians creating in community that I have ever heard. She told us how interesting it is to go back over the early manuscripts, and find a page of The Lord of the Rings written on the back side of one of Lewis’ grocery lists.

I also loved what she said about their accountability: “I think The Lord of the Rings was written on Wednesdays,” she said with a grin. (The Inklings met on Thursdays.)

Through her speech, and then through her book, Diana set my heart on fire. She made me want to brandish my #2 pencils like a sword, splitting the darkness with words good and true. And she reminded me that company on this journey isn’t just a blessing—it’s a necessity.

“Creative accomplishment is a messy process,” she said.

But collaborative fellowship is the simplest thing in the world: “As simple as two people meeting together, regularly and faithfully.”

The Inklings began with Tolkien daring to show one of his poems to Lewis, and Lewis responding, not only with an outpouring of praise and critique, but, most generously of all, with some poems of his own.

Diana explained how the whole act of creation is an exchange of resonance—how we all need other people to connect with our work, hum with its themes like a plucked string, and then amplify the music with a fullness it could not have achieved in its own.

I couldn’t help but think of the kind souls reading here and at Lanier’s Books, who not only take the time to peruse my words, but offer back the stupendous gift of kinship and sympathy. I know I’ve said this before, but I mean it more than ever—you have given me so much courage. You’ve let me make mistakes, say things awkwardly or obtusely; you’ve given me permission to stretch, edit, ask questions, grow. The internet can seem like a vast, scary chasm of unceasing noise—but because of you, this little place has always felt like a firelit room full of friends. You have absolutely no idea what this has meant to me.

And it’s no accident. I tend to agree with Charles Williams, that, as Christians and as members of the human race, we’re pretty much all in all of it together. No matter how alone we may feel at times, we’re part of a Fellowship, in which the magic of timely words and faithful connections and divine appointments is weaving us together in a Story without end. Nothing we do (or fail to do) affects us in isolation; no act of kindness or generosity ends with its own performance. And no intersection with another soul is haphazard. Not really.

No, I don’t believe there’s such a thing as coincidence, be it the books we read or the “company we keep.” There’s a whole lot more going on here than mere chance can account for. When Charles Williams and C.S. Lewis discovered the ‘coincidence’ that they had been admiring one another’s books at exactly the same moment in time, and that their exuberant letters of response all but crossed in the mail, Williams never doubted Who was at the bottom of it all. His summary of the matter to Lewis was unambiguous: “My admiration for the staff work of the Omnipotence rises every day.”

Mines does, too.


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