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The North Wind & the Wise Imagination

[Editor’s note: To begin Opening Week at North Wind Manor, we are delighted to share this piece from Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson on the origin and significance of the name “North Wind Manor,” the Rabbit Room’s hopes for the use and enjoyment of this space, and the legacy of George MacDonald’s extravagant hospitality.]

“I will try to tell you what I think. You musn’t suppose I am able to answer all your questions, though. There are a great many things I don’t understand more than you do.” North Wind descended on a grassy hillock, in the midst of a wild furzy common. There was a rabbit-warren underneath, and some of the rabbits came out of their holes, in the moonlight, looking very sober and wise, just like patriarchs standing in their tent-doors, and looking about them before going to bed. When they saw North Wind, instead of turning round and vanishing again with a thump of their heels, they cantered slowly up to her and snuffled all about her with their long upper lips, which moved every way at once. That was their way of kissing her; and, as she talked to the Child, she would every now and then stroke down their furry backs, or lift and play with their long ears. —George MacDonald, At the Back of the North Wind

In the same years that the old farmhouse now resurrected as North Wind Manor was being built on a grassy hillock in rural Tennessee, a Scottish author named George MacDonald was scribing this tender rabbity scene in his enigmatic, well-loved novel At the Back of the North Wind. Perhaps the Manor’s first occupants even knew the tale: it quickly found its way across the waters from Britain to America in the 1870s. Mark Twain’s children were among its earliest fans, having read their copy so ragged that he wrote to MacDonald for a replacement. As years rolled by, the tale continued to captivate young American readers, such as Madeleine L’Engle who later recalled the “strange mercy” that she found in the book’s language. And then somehow, accumulation of years and yellowing of pages notwithstanding, this story began to work Deeper Magic upon the hearts of a number of Rabbit Room dreamers—determined dreamers that have now, in faithfully embodied imagination, seen the farmhouse through to its next chapter of an ever-unfolding story.

In the quotation above from At the Back of the North Wind, as the moonlit rabbits gather around the novel’s titular character, North Wind attempts to answer a young child’s query: Who is she? Consistent with the book’s poetic invitation into a transcendent realm that suggests more than can be voiced in human words, North Wind offers no simple answer: “I don’t think I am just what you fancy me to be. I have to shape myself various ways to various people. But the heart of me is true.” The child has had many adventures with North Wind at this point in the tale, adventures that have shaped and impacted not just him, but through him every person that has come into his life. And yet he still grapples with the breadth of her mysteriousness—and it is only in holding together all the novel’s poems, and stories, and songs, and images, and dances, and relationships that even we as attentive readers can but catch at intimations. North Wind tells the wondering child that he must wait, and in the meantime, “be hopeful, and content not to be quite sure.”

At the Back of the North Wind is an unusual tale, for it is a tale about asking questions, and, even when not knowing the answers, choosing to choose delight, and joy, and love—choosing to choose story and song and relationship—all without denying the presence of suffering. It is a tale that invites its readers to keep asking questions (the child-protagonist never ceases doing so!), and then to keep choosing to choose that delight, joy, love, story, song, and relationship even when answers are elusive and daily existence is more-than-hard. As it often is. In this story, the child’s family struggles to put food on the table, his father loses his job, his family loses their home, and there is worry, fear, and persistently dangerous ill health. MacDonald himself knew intimately his character’s trials, as have generations of his readers. And so for those readers MacDonald crafted not a story of escapism, but rather a story of re-orienting, of re-envisioning, of continually renewed imagination—a story in which sorrow is a thread throughout, but not the whole. A story in which time-present and time-past are redolent with the resurrection goodness of time-future. A story in which childlike imagination re-envisions all of eternity.

Questions are allowed, even if unanswerable; sorrow is acknowledged and shared; grief and suffering are not denied. But neither are joy nor help nor childlike playfulness, nor hope in that which will yet be made known. And it is in the hospitality of such a space—especially when that hospitality transcends boundaries—that Imagination bodies forth new goodnesses. Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson

The ethos of The Rabbit Room’s North Wind Manor is one that would have delighted both the child in this novel as well as the childlike author who wrote it. MacDonald’s own home was a haven of hospitality and rest, where story and song were not only curated but also cultivated, and in which playfulness and feasting abounded. He and his family were gatherers of culturally, socio-economically, and theologically diverse people, building relationships and community in the most unexpected of places. But in all of their celebration, joy, and play, they never denied grief, suffering, and pain; questions that could not be answered were allowed. The MacDonald family knew all too well that gladness and sorrow can walk hand in hand, dreams gained and livings lost, loved ones too early parted even as new wee ones arrived. MacDonald himself and several of his children knew intimately the exhaustion of chronic and potentially mortal pain that could thread through art-making and community-shaping. And yet together they still chose to pursue Life More Abundant, choosing not to deny the suffering while yet choosing to celebrate the joy. And perhaps this is part of the key that made their hospitality so attractive to so many, the art that it evoked so true.

It seems to me that this is also part of the key that makes the hospitality of The Rabbit Room attractive to so many, and the art that it invites and evokes so true. Questions are allowed, even if unanswerable; sorrow is acknowledged and shared; grief and suffering are not denied. But neither are joy nor help nor childlike playfulness, nor hope in that which will yet be made known. And it is in the hospitality of such a space—especially when that hospitality transcends boundaries—that Imagination bodies forth new goodnesses. “A wise Imagination,” writes MacDonald, “is the presence of the spirit of God” and is “the best guide” that a person can have. He goes on:

It is not the things we see the most clearly that influence us the most powerfully; undefined, yet vivid visions of something beyond, something which eye has not seen nor ear heard, have far more influence than any logical sequences whereby the same things may be demonstrated to the intellect. . . We live by faith, and not by sight. —George MacDonald

MacDonald was fully confident that even in the unknowability of divine mysteries, the Triune God was ever calling us to explore, to engage, to dare to be wisely imaginative participants in relationship—with him, and with his creations. And that to do so would reveal more clearly who we ourselves are called to be.

Just as North Wind says that her identity transcends human language (perhaps in itself a “strange mercy,” to use L’Engle’s words), so too will the events and experiences of this now resurrected North Wind Manor transcend language as well. Some of it will be recorded and conveyed, but some of it will be beyond description. On that grassy hillock where nineteenth century farmers once raised a home, and where long before that a forested rise was traversed and indwelt by Cherokee and their kin, now awaits North Wind Manor—rooted in a particular place with stories of a Creator God’s “almighty help and grace” that reaches both further back and farther forward than any reader can conceive, into some of the chapters of the story that our Creator God is writing.

You musn’t suppose that you will find answers to all your questions at North Wind Manor, regardless of how wise its various rabbits may look. Some will look sober, and I expect others will look goofy and playful and fun. But the rabbits here have chosen to sit with North Wind, and with those she carries, and to listen to their questions even when there aren’t any answers to be spoken or found, content sometimes not to be sure, to choose to wait in hope. Here they have chosen to make a home that speaks Friend for you, so that you may enter—”whether you like food, or sleep, or work, or story-telling, or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or, a pleasant mixture of them all.” Here they hope to introduce you to others who seek to participate with God in his gracious invitation of Imagination; both to friends present and those already gone to the “high countries” at the back of the North Wind. Here they hope that new chapters will not just be written, but will be spoken, painted, and sung, planted, played, and performed—that here hearts will be called to be true.

A wise Imagination is the presence of the Spirit of God. George MacDonald

North Wind Manor is not the “last homely house,” nor do those who tend it ever hope it to be so. Rather the hope is that in embodying well imaginations that are wise, others will be inspired and emboldened to steward yet more hospitable places in which the Creator God, the Incarnate Christ, and the Holy Spirit can be made known through music, story, and art in community. Places where “music speaks of both faith and uncertainties,” and “melodies announce the presence of God;” where “sorrows spoken lend courage,” and allow for wordlessness; where lions are not tame, and the turn of the tide might bring “something understood.” Where nothing is called common, “in the earth or the air,” but “every real thing is a joy for those with eyes and ears to relish it, and nose and tongue to taste it”—and thus behold and be held in the supper of the Lamb. Where childishness is transformed by childlikeness. Where “wild beings from the realm of myth” say to the wild things from the realm of here: “peace—give me your hand.” Where “souls in paraphrase” and “hearts in pilgrimage” are “wound with mercy round and round”—and thus can “rest in the grace of the world and be free.” Where “the brave things in the old tales and songs, the tales that really mattered” are told again and again, pulling listeners in to join the chorus. Where community transcends space and time and accepts the mysterious invitation to practice resurrection.

May North Wind Manor, in her particular place at this particular time, not just choose this but may her stewards antiphonally invite this: holding all such things together as they wait in and for the Holy Wind of wise imaginations.


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