All right. I think everything is up and running at sarahclarkson.com, so from here on out, all writing will take place at the blog over there.
If you signed up to get blog updates by email, you will continue to receive those unless you reply to one to let me know you’d like to opt out (which won’t hurt my feelings – I’m sure you needed to know that).
This dear space will remain live for awhile, but eventually it too will point to the new site (where all the old posts are archived anyway).
So friends, follow me on over. I’ll see you there.
Well, it was supposed to be yesterday, but being new to all this DNS redirecting and stuff, the internal workings of things beyond my ken took longer than I thought they would so here we are at Tuesday. I apologize.
The new website is ready, and the cottage door of sarahclarkson.com is thrown wide open!
Here’s the hysterical thing though; it’s clear that some of you have been able to access the new site at sarahclarkson.com no problem…but I can’t (at least, the public side). I think it may be because things haven’t updated on the servers here in England…? (I speak above my pay grade.)
So. Do hop on over and come on in!
But also let me know if you have any problems doing so.
Pretty soon, I think we’ll all be on the same page.
Oh life. You’re fun.
First off on this late autumn day of limpid blue skies and mild breezy air and burnished leaves, I am delighted to say that the new website will launch on Monday. I’ll post the link here and you can follow it to a welcome post on the new site or, just type sarahclarkson.com and it should take you there (at the moment the link just leads here).
I am honestly, downright excited.
I’ve found the process of creation rather amusing. I have no coding skill whatsoever and couldn’t manage a thing without a helpful website-building platform. Even so, I ended my first day of design in utter despondence. Details are not my strong suit, and the sheer number of small things to tweak and new shortcuts to learn left me bewailing my state. I think Thomas was trying not to laugh. I took a day off to write handwritten letters as a corrective to the oppression of online reality, and started again the next morning.
And then I began to delight. A quickened creativity and joy came to me as I found myself able to shape an online space to more fully reflect the world in my heart and imagination. It’s basic – I know – like when you first move into a house and you put up all the pictures and arrange things and the rooms are simple and new and straight, if perhaps a bit bare. But this website, which I feel is my small Rivendell of a corner on the internet, will grow and ease and burgeon, as homes do when you live in them and the corners fill up with things you love and you figure out just the right place (or word) for that picture or table (or post) and you realize there’s scope for a new room – maybe a library, maybe a place dedicated just to friendship – and you begin to dream.
I think this new website is just the beginning of what I will create and the new conversations or friendships to begin. The joy is that there’s space now for new things to grow. I look so forward to welcoming you in.
I’ve taken too long to finish this post and now it’s late on a Friday afternoon here in England. The shadows are climbing up the golden old church tower out my window, my three jolly candles are lit, and the radiator is ticking to life as the evening chill pools in the room. It’s the first quiet night in with just the two of us that we’ve had in quite a few days, so I’m about to draw the curtains (such an English thing to do) and brew some tea (my goodness, I’m becoming a Brit) for when Thomas gets home.
Before I go, I’ll leave you two poems about the Annunciation to ponder. I have more to say about these – and our poetry group had a lively discussion on them yesterday – but I’ll let you read them, soak a bit in what they evoke before I tell you what I’ve been thinking on their subject. Besides, I think a good chat about poetry and Advent, accompanied by tea and art and general coziness might just be a good way to begin in my new little cottage (I mean, website).
See you soon.
I’ve been stomping through Oxford wearing my warmest scarves and listening to Handel’s Messiah. I highly recommend this combination in whatever place you find yourself. The air finally has that chill that is both sting and exhilaration. We had three weeks of startlingly balmy days – high blue skies, gemmed leaves lingering, and air that just felt… kind. Now it feels sharp and suspicious. The days draw down to darkness right about 4:30 and the urge of body and soul is to seek warm, candlelit corners, to fend of the shadows with music and a woollen blanket.
I find myself tired as well, weary after what feels like several years of nonstop work. My body and soul need it, but I find it hard to rest, as if I’ve lost the skill in these last months of needing to just work straight through. As I make myself sit in the hush of my afternoon living room with the shadows already gathering, as I resist the impulse to work, to seek distraction, as I assent to the almost unwelcome hush of my own need, I find myself really heartened by the reading of Advent poetry and the aching beauty of the Messiah’s music. Advent is so much about learning to assent to the fact that there is a great waiting quiet we must acknowledge. Whether it’s our own limitations or weariness or the need for redemption that we, in a broken world, still wrestle with even amidst the knowledge of Christ’s love, the liturgies and poems of Advent help us to acknowledge the fact that we do wait. Which, impatient, hungering soul that I am is the very thing I don’t prefer to do.
Though Advent proper is still a month away, I’m turning my thoughts in that direction because I’m leading a weekly poetry group at Wycliffe. I’ve been part of this Advent reading group every year and it has been such a place of nourishment and friendship. We read aloud a couple of Advent poems each week, sit in quiet as long as we like, and then explore the thoughts that rise in each of us as we savor the woven words. Having found such strength myself in the reading of Advent poetry this week, I thought I’d share the poems we discover here over the next month. Perhaps you can glean, even a little early, some of the wonder and sharpened insight that we are gathering as well.
And I love the thought of friends sharing words across the world.
We’re following a different theme each week as we progress through the journey of advent. This week was our opening, where we looked at poems that evoke the haunting cry of Isaiah, ‘those who have walked in darkness’ before they have seen the great light. (I used the delightfully titled Haphazard by Starlight: A Poem a Day from Advent to Epiphany collection to find this week’s selections.)We looked at poems that evoke the themes of watching and waiting. I have loved what we explored this week because as I read the headlines that sometimes feel relentless in their exposure of what is worst in the human heart and in the world, it helps me to remember that we live in the tension of the now and not yet, the kingdom come in our hearts in a world that still aches and cries for redemption.
That’s what I think R.S. Thomas’ poem, ‘The Absence’ describes:
It is this great absence
that is like a presence, that compels
me to address it without hope
of a reply. It is a room I enter
Someday, I will meet a book or essay deadline with a week to spare. I will be calm, having lost no sleep, and having also kept life at a fairly ordinary rhythm in the meantime. I will also have maintained a normal round of blogging and email answering, thus giving evidence of my continued health and capacity to write to begin with.
That day has not yet come. I tend to meet deadlines in a writing vortex; I eat, breathe, sleep, and think the book to completion and all else falls by the wayside until the moment the thing has to be sent off. But meet my deadlines I do and I submitted the Book Girl manuscript at 3AM last Friday morning, with my husband nearby plying me with water and gummy bears (you’d be surprised at how effective these can be in maintaining mental strength) and all the candles in our little living room lit to keep me awake and inspired. My friends, Book Girl is on her way into the wide world.
And having emerged from the vortex I can greet you here again. As I write from my spot in the Wycliffe Library on this relaxed afternoon, the sun, a blessed sun that feels like a gift in the midst of autumn’s growing grey, flickers over my hands. Leaves shimmer gold in the wind, the air is easy and cool and my mind turns afresh to the grace of this moment, the gift of the ordinary splendor in such wild play out the window of every day. I think I see with even a little more gratitude than I did before because of the books I’ve been reading over the summer of writing, and the way they have shaped my idea of what it means to be a writer, and what I receive every time I read.
One of the books I discovered is Robert MacFarlane’s slim little bound essay The Gifts of Reading. I first read MacFarlane several years ago when I found a copy of his The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. The book was part contemplation, part real-life novel, part history, part literary ramble centred on the his fascination with ‘landscape and the human heart’. In ordering his little essay I discovered his most recent book, a glory of a children’s picture book written to help modern children reengage with the fading language and ever-present mysteries of the natural landscape. And it has won my heart.
The Lost Words is a luminous, lyrical book of illustrations that evoke the movement and essence, the ordinary miracle of things like ‘dandelion’, ‘otter’, ‘bramble’, and ‘acorn’. I’ve seen snippets of it online and perused it at the bookstore (it’s on my ‘please-someone-get-me-this-for-Christmas-list) and what I find in its pages is the sense of something created as a gift. It reminds me of the Millais painting of a blind girl sitting under a rainbow and the girl beside her describing it (an image that was deeply meaningful to me). This is, in a way, MacFarlane’s and his illustrator Jackie Morris’ way of ‘writing the rainbow’ for the children who can’t see it and in that description, beginning to heal the blindness.
Books like that are acts of generosity. Many books, I believe, are. After a summer spent revisiting old classics, exploring new beloveds, crafting lists of the books that formed the way I see the world, I’ve realized that often the books I love the most are an offering rooted in an author’s sense of responsibility and thanks for some goodness or truth deeply perceived. It may be grace glimpsed in sorrow. Acceptance sprouting up in disaster. But there is a rich sense of Denise Levertov’s affirmation that: I believe poets are . . . makers, craftsmen: it is given to the seer to see, but it is then his responsibility to communicate what he sees, that they who cannot see may see, since we are ‘members one of another.’
In writing Book Girl I have become deeply aware of the fact that as a writer, I speak from what I have been generously given. I am a lover of books, a student of theology, one who can wonder at the world because so many people before me – my parents, my favorite writers, the friends who pressed good books into my hands, the tutors here at Oxford who were faithful to communicate what they had discovered – were generous with their words. They spoke me into wonder. They startled me awake. They took me by the hand of mind and soul and pointed at the rainbow.
My great hope for Book Girl is that it will be the same. A giving of thanks that begins the vision for another reader. If that could be the case, I think the vortex would be worth it.
The stacks of books and loose notes for my last (the last) paper due are piling up around mine ears, but I had a lovely break of a chat the other day with my delightful mom. We talked books. Their beauty and power to shape our lives, to widen our imaginations. We laughed over the stories we loved from our respective corners of Oxford and Colorado and had the grandest time in the world (with cups of tea in hand, of course)
And the chat became a podcast, which my mom is featuring on her blog today.
So if you’re up for sharing a bit of Clarkson girl bookishness and general delightedness in the wonder of words, hop on over HERE. You’ll find the link ready and waiting.
Have a lovely day while you’re at it.
Lila was the first real novel I read this summer. I started it in the weeks just after the last push for exams, when my mind was weary and ready to be swept up into another’s world. I was not disappointed. Rarely have I felt myself so immersed in the thought of a character, in many ways thinking along with her, forgetting my own omniscience as a reader.
Lila is the companion to the earlier Gilead. That first novel is a book of letters, written by an elderly pastor in small town Iowa to the young son whose adulthood he knows he will not live to see. Lila, mother of that son, glimmers in the background of the book, her presence a grace that still startles the old man to wonder. We know, from the old man’s words, that his marriage was startling, if not scandalous to the small town and flock in his keeping. We know that Lila was a drifter, a woman with an unknown past.
In Lila the novel, we are taken into Lila’s mind, seeing the story, the marriage, the coming child through her own eyes. In a masterful stream of narrative, in which Lila’s thoughts leap between memory and present, past event and current meaning we encounter, not just a story, but the shape of a mind that has been molded by loneliness, by suspicion, by a long, hard life on the road. Lila’s inner voice is inclined to distrust everyone and yet… she yearns to trust. What brings Lila into the story we read is her hunger for love, her fragile hope in the gentle love of a good old man whose faithfulness has challenged the narrative by which she lives.
Lila is in many ways the story of two inner voices, that of loneliness, and that of love, and the two as they wrestle for primacy within Lila’s heart. Someday I should probably write a longer and more literary review of this remarkable book, but for the moment, I just want to write about those two voices, because what gripped me was how familiar they were. As I read Lila’s thoughts, thought them with her really, I was startled by my first inclination to believe Lila’s inner narrative precisely because mine is often the same. I know the power of loneliness to tinge any offer of love with doubt, to steal away the innocence of joy, to darken expectation of good. I wonder if most of us do, if we will finally be honest with ourselves.
But what challenged Lila’s fractured way of seeing was love; in action, in presence, in faithfulness that could not be denied. And it challenged mine, made me again aware of the power of my thoughts to tinge the world around me, the love given to me in husband and family and friends, made me realize that, as a dear mentor has told me many a time “you have to speak to your thoughts, not listen to them!” So as I read, I began to note down characteristics of each voice, interrogating my own inner narrative as I went.
First, the voice of loneliness.
You best keep to yourself, except you never can. (all italic quotes from Lila)
Loneliness cannot forget the grief of the past. Every time a moment of peace comes to Lila or her heart begins to settle into the gift that is her new home, she gets suspicious. It’s too good to be true; and the voice of loneliness tells her she’s too smart to believe it. She steels herself for the moment that the Old Man will be angry at her, will send her away.
That’s one good thing about the way life is, that no one can know you if you don’t let them.
Loneliness always sets the painful past as a backdrop to the mind so that the heart is tense and defensive. Lila remembers the darkness before and any kindness or good or casual word gets filtered through a screen of sadness. The old man’s quiet, stated devotion reaches Lila as a hollow promise, something she expects to fade.
She had told herself more than once not to call it loneliness, since it wasn’t any different from one year to the next, it was just how her body felt, like hungry or tired, except it was always there, always the same.
Loneliness tells us we are not worth love. Loneliness shows Lila the long line of people who left her, forgot her, rejected her and presents that as defining evidence of her worth as a person. And she believes it. She believes it so strongly that she almost cannot accept the love that comes to challenge the tyrannical finality of loneliness.
Loneliness, oddly, seeks isolation. One is safe when one cannot be betrayed. And Lila’s impulse is always to leave. It is the secret possibility that makes her feel safe.
But what about love, the voice that challenges that of loneliness? In the novel, love finds Lila in the form of the old man whose care both for her soul and her heart are tenacious, long-suffering, and tender. The old man, even amidst his own frailty and need yet embodies that paean of love in 1 Corinthians, rooted as he is in a lifelong journey toward the healing love of God himself.
The voice of love?
Love draws us into the present. Love draws Lila from the mist of her grief and guilt, summoning her to stand in the presence, not of phantoms, but of a human being whose hands and heart are offered to her.
If the Lord is more gracious than any of us can begin to imagine, and I’m sure He is, then your Doll [Lila’s sort-of guardian] and a whole lot of people are safe, and warm, and very happy. And probably a little bit surprised.
Love sees us in the wholeness we cannot imagine for ourselves. The old man sees the beauty in Lila’s loyal, suspicious heart and by his love, he draws her, step by step into health. Day by day, as she dwells within the home that is his gift she begins to belong, begins even to believe she belongs. At first she feels it is play-acting, but love not only brings her home, it makes her at home, makes of her a loved and honored wife and helps her to believe it too.
She thought, if we stay here, soon enough it will be you sitting at the table and me, I don’t know, cooking something, and the snow flying, and the old man so glad we’re here he’ll be off in his study praying about it. And geraniums in the window. Red ones.
Love never fails. Even in the face of suspicion. The old man’s affection remains. He is sometimes grieved, often frustrated as he sees the fear light up in her eyes, the impulse to run straiten her muscles. But his love does not fail and it knows how to wait.
When you’re scalded, touch hurts, it makes no difference if it’s kindly meant.
Love hopes, ah, it hopes with a mighty will. It’s a precious thing to watch hope grow in Lila’s mind. It comes in flashes, little glimmers of expectation that, at first, she pushes away. But later, she begins to believe, begins to desire, begins to trust. Until she comes to the a place where she can look at the past behind her, not to bury it in denial but to hold it out to the touch of love, for:
There was no way to abandon guilt, no decent way to disown it. All the tangles and knots of bitterness and desperation and fear had to be pitied. No, better, grace had to fall over them.
I’ve been thinking a lot about loneliness lately because I think its endemic to the human condition and I think our sense of isolation is deepened by modern life. One of the things I studied in theology was what it means to be fallen, to sin, to live out the opposite of love. And the opposite isn’t hate, as you might instantly think.
Rather, if you define love as the perfect and continued gift of self as imaged for us in the Trinity, as incarnated in Christ, if you think of love as fellowship with God and with one’s fellow creatures (as I would after many hours of study), then the opposite of Love is a self turned in upon itself, a self isolated and disconnected from other selves, a self profoundly alone.
Isolation, disconnection, this is what it means to be fallen, and in a culture that tends toward radical individualism and an online world where we can hide our real, lonely selves behind countless profiles, I think it is easy for us to listen to the voices of loneliness and turn increasingly from the challenge of encountering the real, transformative love of God, or the challenging love of the other people in our lives. Isolation is safety. But it is also a slow, slow death.
After reading Lila I was challenged to confront my inner narratives. It’s the small things. It’s choosing to live in the acceptance of my husband, accepting his loving ease with my foibles when my heart fears rejection. It’s choosing to reach out to friends I haven’t seen for awhile, to choose connection rather that isolation when I feel forgotten or lonely. It’s choosing over and over to recognise and talk down that voice in my head that makes me suspicious of friendship or expectant of rejection or even just tells me to switch on the screens and lull the loneliness. It’s choosing, daily, to read my battered old Bible one more time and try to believe the grace I am offered, the hope I have, the love in which I stand.
I’m getting there. I hope you are too. May the voice of love break into whatever narrative you and as with Lila, ‘may grace fall over’ every bit of your heart.
The summer I was eleven, I discovered the Anne books for myself. I’m pretty sure my Mom had read me Anne of Green Gables aloud before, and I’m pretty sure I liked it. But when the sunny hours stretched long (and in Texas far too hot for outdoor play) one July day, I reached for the second book in the series. Suddenly, the Anne books became a world that blossomed in my imagination, a place and a people almost as real to me as those of my house and family. Anne called her pond a ‘lake of shining water’, she made ‘kindred spirits’, she wove the ordinary of house and farm and kitchen into a drama of discovery so that each person around her appeared like a figure in a fairy tale, each house a living story, each day a gift set in her hands by a grace beyond her ken. I dwelt in her vision and began to see my own world afresh.
My engagement with ordinary life was different after my sojourn with Anne in P.E.I. The rich mystery that Anne made of the everyday livened me to a new and heightened awareness of my own world as gift. The descriptions of landscape and person that I discovered in the Anne books instigated my own forays into writing as I attempted to see and begin to describe my own life in her charmed and sacred terms. The Anne books offered me that ‘enlargement of being’ that C.S. Lewis describes as one of the great gifts of story in his pithy little volume An Experiment in Criticism.
As he so fervently states, ‘in reading great literature, I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.’
These are exactly the qualities at back of the novels I’m gathering to recommend in my new book. I’m hard at glorious work on Book Girl, gathering quotes and making impossibly long lists of my favourite books. In honour of the (supposedly) lazy days of summer and as a fit start to this project I’ve used these first weeks to revisit the novels that allowed me that ‘enlargement of being’ so rejoiced in by Lewis. I’m reading back through a few Anne books, I’ve revisited the lonely, revealing inner narrative of Lila: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson, savouring its slow, slow growth in grace. I’ve traveled back through The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, and remembered the way that reading connects us to each other and this sweet and weary old earth. There’s no way I can make it through this summer and the writing of this book without a bit of Goudge’s sacramental enchantment in The Little White Horse. And since I am regularly teased about being a Wendell Berry apologist, I think I’d better revisit Remembering: A Novel (Port William) too, as its one of the books that helped me to understand my old-souled self and my place in this strange, modern world. (And my goodness, his Selected Poems have ministered to me of late.)
But now, I need to adventure a bit. Obviously, I have dozens of beloved novels on the lists already. But I want to adventure a bit before I set them in stone. Below, I have a list of novels, a few essays, and a bit of poetry, none of which I’ve yet read. These are the books I’ve heard about, been told I should read, or just had covers I couldn’t resist. I know there are countless thousands of titles I could read or recommend, but I’m looking for the books whose stories enlarge my vision, not randomly, but with greater insight into the workings of love, the ways of grief, the real wrestle with frailty, or the forward march of hope. Books, in other words, that teach me what it means to be human, and what it looks like to reach for the wholeness of love in its thousand different ways.
I would love to know the books that you would list as the sort that help you to live and live a bit more to the full. I’d love your thoughts on any of the books below. And I’d love to know what you’re reading yourself. If there’s one thing I want Book Girl to be, it’s a fellowship of readers, so consider yourself invited. And let the reading continue.
I’m off to snatch a few more minutes with Lila…
A Thousand Mornings: Poems
My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer
When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays
A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry: A Novel
84, Charing Cross Road
The Book of Ebenezer Le Page (New York Review Books Classics)
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand: A Novel
The Summer Before the War: A Novel
The Light Between Oceans
The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise
The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation