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The Life Imagined

“Distrust any enterprise that requires new clothes.”

The Henry David gem had been buzzing at my mind all day, and all day I had been tenaciously smiling it down.

I had smiled it down when I cut out one of the skirt pieces upside down, and when I had to trot back to the store to buy the lining fabric I had somehow managed to forget, and—gritting my teeth a bit—when I found I had to rip a whole long careful row of neat stitches that just happened to be on the wrong side of the fabric.

“I need to do this for myself,” I insisted to the air as I took a deep breath and hunched over the billows of pale blue eyelet on my lap.

For weeks I had been so busy I’d scarcely had time to breathe. I had a barn-full of newly acquired baby goats and lambs and a whole litany of new responsibilities to go with them. A household regimen threatening to implode under the pressure of forestalled spring cleaning. A garden that had gone in by the sheer grit of one last burst of exhausted productivity. Not to mention a world of needs and their care that clamored outside the boundary markers of my own particular place on earth. And we were leaving on vacation the next morning, leaving all those babies and seedlings and dust bunnies to the oversight of others and packing-ironing-unpacking-repacking-cleaning-out-the-fridge-changing-the-sheets-watering-the-garden-remembering-to-feed-the-fish-and-don’t-forget-the-chicken-feed to get on the road first thing the next day.

So, of course, it followed that the very best thing I could possibly do for myself was to make a new dress.

After the incident with the seam ripper I stood up for a stretch, thinking a cup of tea would clear my head a bit (and maybe still the pounding in my temples). On the way downstairs I stopped by my desk and checked my email.

A moment later I was in my chair with my head in my hands, weeping.

Tasha Tudor had died.

Peacefully, in her own home, the message said. With her loved ones around her and all the evidences crowding in of a life lived well. The life she had imagined and gone after with a passion rarely seen, in our age or any other. The life that had become a world for her family and friends, and for those of us all over the globe privileged to have a share in it through her books and paintings.

The news drew me up, halted me in my mad career through the day. Sickened me with the sham I had been making of my own ‘life imagined’ of late. All she had imparted by her life and her works seemed to wash over me in a flood and mingle with my tears. Those little Nubian goats out in the barn were her doing—I had fallen in love amid the pages of her books. The dream of a kitchen hearthfire and fairy rings in the garden and magical Christmases and farm-fresh eggs (from the most coddled chickens, of course)–a homeplace where the old ways were revered (though of an 1850s variety on my part, instead of her 1830s)—these all came down to me through the goodly lineage of Tasha Tudor.

Every day I have the opportunity to choose how I am going to live—this is a great privilege but also a great responsibility. Lanier Ivester

Or they rose up in me, rather, latent longings that were as much me as the blue eyes I’d gotten from my grandfather and my slightly crooked smile. Tasha Tudor helped me to validate them, and a thousand others. To look the world and its expectations in the eye and say, “Well, hang it, this is the way I want to live my life!” This careful attendance upon beauty—this devotion to the moments that make for real living—for myself and those I love. Alone in the garden; sipping tea with a kindred spirit at my kitchen table or feasting with friends in the dining room; nuzzling a thoroughly spoiled goat in the barn; welcoming my husband back to a haven at the end of the day. I embraced the choices offered me as a young woman in the era into which I had been born. And I chose this.

And Tasha had given me the courage to do it.

But I’d gotten sidetracked over the unthinking course of a busy year; lost some of my moorings. I had forgotten how unnecessary some things were, and how essentially vital were others. I’d given my perfectionism its head and I’d jostled along brain-rattled in its wake. When choices had pressed in hard all around me, I hadn’t kept faith with the original vision. The vision was rooted in deeper things, of course, than a fellow human creature’s chosen lifestyle: it was anchored in the eternal and completely unique calling of God on my life. It had to do not only with the temporal elements of making a home, but with the undying realities sustaining it.

I had forgotten.

The life Tasha Tudor lived so graciously was her choice. Likewise, no matter what I had been saying to myself to the contrary, the pace I’d been keeping over all those weary months was my choice. It had been my choice to respond to every need that came to my ears as if I alone in the universe could answer it. It had been my choice to prefer one opportunity over another simply because it seemed more “spiritual” and important, personal desires notwithstanding. It had been my choice to try and do it all when I realized that personal desires were getting the shaft.

Every day I have the opportunity to choose how I am going to live—this is a great privilege but also a great responsibility. The way of our dreams–the Alpine Path, if you will–is not a leisurely stroll in a shaded wood, or even a pleasant hike up a rolling grade. It is a daily battle. A limiting unto more freedom. A devotion and a discipline, and it will sometimes require a shedding or a pruning or a sundering. It means that I cannot be choice-less in the matter because every day’s fruit is only a result of the choices I have made all along the way, from the time I get up till the time I go to bed.

Into this equilibrium for many Christians is added the uniquely evangelical bugbear of separating the “sacred” from the “secular”: the judging between options and activities based on so-called “spiritual merit”; the low priority of certain desires on the mere basis that they are mine and must therefore somehow be less than God’s will. The notion that tiredness is next to godliness. The goading to keep pace with the frenzied music of the world around me rather than the still, soft music that God would sing over my life. Viewing life as a compartmentalized series of duties and earned pleasures instead of the holistic dance of sacramental joy that it is.

The voices hammer loud in my head:

“What? Devotion to a lifestyle? There is nothing eternal in that outlook—it is all wrapped up in temporal things that won’t endure. And besides, you need to be out witnessing rather than letting your self-image get tied up in that house and whatever it is that you do there.”

But then I brush fingers with the great ones and my heart breathes in the pure air of eternity:

“Don’t be too easily convinced that God really wants you to do all sorts of work you needn’t do. Each must do his duty ‘in that state of life to which God has called him.’ Remember that a belief in the virtues of doing for doing’s sake is characteristically feminine, characteristically American, and characteristically modern: so that three veils may divide you from the correct view! There can be intemperance in work just as in drink. What feels like zeal may be only fidgets or even the flattering of one’s self-importance. As MacDonald says, ‘In holy things may be unholy greed!’ And by doing what ‘one’s station and its duties’ does not demand, one can make oneself less fit for the duties it does demand and so commit some injustice. Just you give Mary a chance as well as Martha!”

C. S. Lewis, Letters to An American Lady

“You can’t witness to a computer screen,” said one friend in exasperation at this supposed dichotomy.

But because of Tasha Tudor and her example to live the life uniquely suited to one’s calling, I can hold my head up a little higher and say, “No, you can’t do much witnessing to a laptop. Or a row of tomato plants or a loaf of bread. Or to a barn-full of animals—but it’s highly unlikely they would need it. I prefer to let them witness to me.”

And it’s at that computer keyboard, and in that garden, and kneeling amid velvety, inquisitive noses that I find God. It’s in the quiet mornings of a quiet life. It’s in poetry and music and fabulous talks with my husband on the front porch over a glass of wine. And chatting with my friends over a pot (or three) of tea. It’s in novels and in the classics of my faith and in old cookbooks. This is me. This is my life—the life I have been called and equipped to live. No one else will have the same destiny with God that I would amid flowers and goats and cats and dogs and stories and duets—this one is tailor-made for me. And for some reason, this is where He most pleases to meet me and show me Himself. This is where Christ dwells in me and where eternity touches time. And that’s what it’s all about.

I grew to hate that silly dress I had been stewing over when I got the news of Tasha’s death. It’s an absolute dream, a frothy cloud after a 1950′s Vogue pattern. But just like the tare that inspired it, it’s too much. Too fussy; too burdened with its own presence. It represents a false me, a me that frets over stubborn projects just because I happened to think them up. A me that says I can do it all and still have grey matter to spare. And save the world while I’m at it.

A me that is not me. Not really. And it’s such a relief to be reminded.

So today I’m celebrating Tasha Tudor’s life and all the determined joy with which she lived it. I’m keeping her memory in the keeping of my dreams—many of which have been kindled into life by her own. My grateful and heartfelt love follows her, and my teacup is raised with another bit of Thoreau that Tasha’s friends will instantly recognize:

I learned this, at least, that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.


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