I was rifling through old papers a few days ago and found a note I had written on Christmas Eve almost ten years before.
I recognized it at once and remembered how I had dashed upstairs in the middle of Christmas dinner prep to jot it down. At the time, my family lived in a rental home that often felt too small for the six of us, especially as we were all idealists with feathers badly ruffled by the last few years. I was in between jobs and decisions, my siblings were finishing high school and my parents were working through some tough ministry years. My family is a high stakes bunch, and by that I mean that we live to the zenith. Opinions, dreams, goals, loves, dislikes, we don’t really do things by halves. This makes for a vivid and highly entertaining life, but when confusion is a daily companion, and all the dreamers are uncertain, the high stakes feel perilous. Life was an adventure at that point, but not an easy one. Muscles of heart were formed in those days but they came with a great deal of ache.
How strange then that the words winking up at me from that old scrawled page held only joy. I sat on my floor, several years of old papers in disarray around me, but I was lost to the present. That old Christmas Eve rose before me, caught in my hurried jots, a day in which the taste of grace came to me in vivid burst of insight that chased despair away. When I looked up from my old words, it was with the spark of resolve in my eye. Funny how convicting the words of a younger self can be.
Ten years later, I am in a year when struggle stands a little back and ease comes in his place. But I work just as hard as ever to have a heart that perceives the goodness all around me. I do not suffer from angst of heart so much these days, only too much activity of mind. In reading my own past words, I found an invitation. Somehow, amidst the troubles of that almost forgotten year, I glimpsed the sort of holiness that hides in the everyday. The words of my younger self came to me as a command to stop, here, and now. To listen, to love. To perceive, even for an instant, the sacred as it peeks at us from kitchen feasts or children’s eyes. I think I’m going to go make a cup of tea.
It is Christmas Eve and I stand in our woefully small kitchen, up to my elbows in salad dressing and green peas. Seven-layer salad with brown sugar ham; this has somehow become a family tradition since our sojourn in the South. This year the careful layering has fallen to me. I dot the green peas with bits of red pepper for Christmas color and smother it all in cheese. I am careful to cover each speck of green lest any one bite be bereft of its proper taste.
Absolute equality, in cooking and relationships, is something I have learned from my mother.
I sing as I work, for the old favorite album is trilling away and however trivial the saying may be, work does go faster with song.
Joy sings along on the nook couch, her swift, small hands in industrious flight through steel blue wool as she frantically knits a last minute gift for Matthew, one of the teenage “adopted boys” of our home. She is determined to finish his scarf before Christmas morning, but I see that her fingers are aching as she stands to measure the length of her work around her own neck.
“Do you think this is almost long enough?” she asks, with a slight dramatization of stooped shoulders, “it almost comes to my waist and you know Matthew’s a bit short, how much taller could he really be than me?”
She stretches her legs to their full ten-year-old little girl height. Mom merely raises an eyebrow and Joy sinks back in resignation to keep on at her Christmas mission. I watch her and work away myself, and wonder what the world would do without the many Christmas-hearted souls who make last minute surprises and knit not just physical, but spiritual gifts of well-kept traditions.
How easy it is to miss the beauty woven in the everyday. We three here in the kitchen are the makers of all that our family most loves at Christmas, the good food, the kisses, the gifts and well-set table. For an instant, I see that we are keepers of life’s richness. Year to year, the weavers of joy.
I glance at my mother behind me, her hands coated with flour and the dark specks of garlic and herbs she’s working into the soft dough of our Christmas Eve bread. My eyes are fixed on her hands; I love my mother’s hands. They are deft and sure, taut with a wordless capability that brings order and life to all they touch. Today it is the bread; last night it was my heart.
She gives the loaf its final twist and plops it onto the baking stone. She sighs in relief and I smile. That was the last of that batch; already a toppling pile of plump rolls and intricate knots of cinnamon bread sit on the stove for the morrow. Potato soup simmers in a pot and the ham bastes in the oven. My mother, I realize, is a marvel.
The goodwill of mothers is like the good will of God, I think. I am keenly aware of it’s lack in myself and can only conclude that it is a gift that comes with time or the giving of birth. My mother’s will towards us, her children, is so persistently, so relentlessly good; a will to bless, to delight, whether or not we deserve it.
There is no pressing reason that she should so expend herself today in fancy cooking and the wrapping of countless presents in colored paper. But for some reason, and by a special grace, she does. If she didn’t, I think the world might suddenly cease in kindness and lose its warmth. There are a million mothers behind the smiles and sanity of humankind.
I too have finished my work. The phone rings and Mom runs to answer it upstairs. I lean against the counter and rest my stiff knees. My stomach is groaning with hunger at the wondrous smells nearby, but I have promised myself not a bite until tonight. I close my eyes, I breathe. The scent of freshly cooked garlic and onion is heady stuff and I feel rather woozy in my rare, sweet quiet.
Or maybe I am dizzy with the life of it all.
Here, in this still moment, when my hands and head have stopped their spinning, I suddenly see the rest of the world in its joyous dance. There is music in our work, in the making of our feast and the decking of tables and trees and persons. There’s a rhythm in the click of Joy’s needles and clack of our tongues, in our constant turn from job to job.
I can’t always hear this song, or feel this cadence when I rush and fret, but when I can stop for even a split moment like this, I always catch it, however faint. I suddenly realize that the toes of my soul are tapping to the rhythm of some eternal, daily song.
Today, I think I’ve caught the tune of that song again. My soulish toes are tapping away.
The C.S. Lewis Symposium and the Poet’s Corner dedication at Westminster were events that enriched my mind and challenged my soul in the best sort of way. The symposium was a feast of thought, and the celebration of Lewis’ life at the dedication offered an atmosphere of goodness, truth, and beauty that made me hunger for those things with even more urgency than usual. The whole thing was the kind of festal, outer experience that turns your eye inward at the end and makes you wonder if you have what it takes to live with such vibrancy yourself.
So, I’ve rounded up a list of links, recordings, and posts to give you a taste of those grand events. Be warned. Great goodness and beauty always pose a challenge the the soul. You may not escape unchanged.
So. To begin with the grandest, if you want to listen to the full recording of the service on the great day itself, go here.
For a PDF of the service program (definitely worth a good read, I kept mine for further contemplation) go here.
From the C.S. Lewis symposium the day before, here’s a link to the audio recording of Malcolm Guite’s marvelous talk on imagination in Lewis’ writing: Telling the Truth Through Imaginative Fiction
And another link to Alistair McGrath’s lively talk on Lewis’ grasp of reason: Telling the Truth Through Rational Argument
And here’s a recording of the C.S. Lewis panel discussion that evening, a fascinating conversation that went many different directions: C.S. Lewis Panel Discussion
If you want to read some really lovely blog contemplations on this event, I submit these for your perusal:
C.S. Lewis’ 50th: A Fireside View, by my lovely friend Lancia.
A Report from the C.S. Lewis Memorial Service, by Holly Ordway, chair of the apologetics department at HBU (where they have an emphasis on imaginative apologetics that is rather exciting).
C.S. Lewis’ Memorial Service, by Jeanette Sears, a writer and speaker with a special interest in C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, and Dorothy Sayers. (I heard her talk at the C.S. Lewis society a couple of years ago and greatly enjoyed what she had to say.)
Let the posts of Christmas poetry begin! Culling a few favorite Christmas poems to post here is one of my favorite blogging activities. I have some beauties this year. May the words set music to your heart and day.
A Christmas Poem
by Dick Davis
One of the oxen said
“I know him, he is me – a beast
Of burden, used, abused,
Excluded from the feast -
A toiler, one by whom
No task will be refused:
I wish him strength, I give him room.”
One of the shepherds said
“I know him, he is me – a man
Who wakes when others sleep,
Whose watchful eyes will scan
The drifted snow at night
Alert for the lost sheep:
I give this lamb, I wish him sight.”
One of the wise men said
“I know him, he is me – a king
On wisdom’s pilgrimage,
One Plato claimed would bring
The world back to its old
Unclouded golden age:
I wish him truth, I give him gold.”
Mary his mother said
“I know his heart’s need, it is mine -
The chosen child who lives
Lost in his Lord’s design
The self and symbol of
The selfless life he gives:
I give him life, I wish him love.”
From the collection The Covenant (1984).
On our first day in England, we stared down jetlag, checked our luggage at Paddington, and took the Tube to Covent Garden. The air was damp and darkling blue when we emerged from the underground station. The day had reached that hour when Christmas lights glimmer into the shadow, not merely bright, but with a burning depth of light that is a challenge to the coming dark. Sheets of pale blue stars were strung across the streets and a mighty Christmas tree shimmered at the entrance to the open market. As I waited for Joel and Mom to finish something at the (gigantic) Apple store, I leaned against the chill, weathered pillar just outside to savor the light and watch the countless faces mill by. That’s when I saw the man below. He stood just feet away. In the ten minutes that I watched him (surreptitiously, of course) he never took his eyes from the Christmas tree. He stood there, eyes fixed on the lights, a smile gathering about his mouth, entirely in his own wondrous world. He never even noticed when I (very stealthily) snapped his photo.
Home now, as I page through my photos, I feel in great sympathy with this steady-eyed man. I feel that I looked upon England with the same fixed, gentle, happy wonder. My whole trip this time was full of a quiet reveling. Even as I pounded miles down the streets or meadows, shopped, listened, talked, and laughed, the inmost me was simply watching. Day after day, I peered out from within my soul, happy, calm, at rest in the sight of the beauties that crowded my sight. Perhaps the pictures below will beckon you to the same gladsome quiet, the same slowed pulse and easy soul to which they led me. Isn’t the world a lovely place?
If only I knew his name.
I’m not sure what he thinks about that wreath on his head. But he does manage to wear it with dignity.
There’s a reason English roses have the reputation they do.
For some reason, this sight struck my funny bone. All three of us rather chuckled when we stumbled upon it.
…”England’s green and pleasant land…” (Blake)
I feel that this is the kind of door behind which someone like the good Miss Goudge might have lived. Or at least one of her characters. Maybe one of the lovely old ladies from The Dean’s Watch.
”Thou’st made the world to beautiful this year/ My soul is all but out of me…” (Edna St. Vincent Millay)
A tower of teacups. Well, I never.
I reacquainted myself with those sister trees on a reminiscent ramble down the river footpath near my former Oxford flat. No wonder my soul felt so at peace in the evenings when I used to wander.
Breakfast (Joel’s birthday breakfast) at our Oxford B&B. Golden leaves shimmered out the window every morning, a good pot of tea piped hot on the table each day, and the yogurt I love when I’m overseas was my breakfast staple. Rather ideal. But why doesn’t yogurt in America taste as good? I have never figured this out.
The desk of the good C.S. Lewis. I wonder if literary genius can seep into the atmosphere of a home. And does it rub off on visitors?
A side view of The Kilns, Lewis’ home just outside of Oxford. That, I do believe, was his window, and that, I think, was the tiny porch on which he used to set up a telescope and stare at the stars. I keep on discovering more reasons to like him.
I went for a long walk every day. Sometimes twice.
Christmas splendor at Covent Garden.
Westminster by night.
Westminster by day. I spent most of two days with my neck back and my eyes fixed upward.
A golden end to the day of the Lewis dedication and memorial in Westminster Abbey. We walked for miles after the service and saw that sunset right at Trafalgar Square. The we went for a nice big tea. Inspiration, long walks, deep thought, and friendship make us ravenous.
And the tea was all that even we could wish for. (I do hate to admit that we are rather opinionated when it comes to what constitutes a strong cup of tea. So few seem to share our convictions in this area.)
This merry band kept up a rousing round of high-spirited classical pieces, and they even danced in place. The violinist actually clicked her heels once!
One of my favorite ever tea rooms. Freshly discovered. Fully savored.
The West doors to Ely Cathedral, one of the few places on earth I have ever been that felt grand enough to sate my soul. I truly love that place.
The meadow view of King’s College Chapel, in Cambridge. It’s been six years since I spent a summer in Cambridge and I had forgotten the loveliness of that sight, one I saw every day as I walked into town. The inside, though I didn’t see it this time, is its own marvel. And the choir that fills that chapel with song… a wonder. If you enjoy English choral music, you should look up the yearly live broadcast of “Nine Lessons and Carols” from King’s College. They do it every Christmas Eve. I’ll be tuning in, hot chocolate in hand.
And wishing I was back in England.
I greatly enjoy jet-lagging. At least on the homeward end, because it sets me back in the rhythm of waking when the stars are still out.
On this Thanksgiving morning, I woke at four something and curled myself in my chair to watch the candle flames sway in the inky black of my windows. I opened my Bible to that old, jubilant Psalm 103, which has long put the words of praise in my mouth that I yearned to sing.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name.
In the long, watchful dark of the hour before dawn, I set my heart to blessing God. I peered back over the landscape of my life in the past year and marked the roads of grace, the houses of kindness, the feasts of joy that met me on my road.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget none of his benefits.
I opened my trusty red notebook and listed out every thing for which I could offer thanks. I strove to remember every grace, to forget none. My pen moved swiftly. My mind leapt ahead of me from memory to bright memory. As if I found each afresh, I remembered love given, adventures taken, quiet moments of wonder discovered, help unexpectedly given, encouragement when I was close to despair. My pen raced.
I won’t say I was surprised. I know myself blessed. But as thanks welled up in my heart, I felt undone by the goodness I was remembering. So much grace has been heaped in my hands. I will be honest. I am not prone to gratitude. I am prone to wonder, but my heart is the hungry kind, I am always reaching forward, always a little discontent with where I find myself. I yearn for so much beyond my touch that it is hard for me sometimes to stop long enough to acknowledge what I actually possess. The record of my blessing scratched on the page today was a discipline by which I tethered my restless mind and looked long on the goodness that has kept me in life.
Who heals forgives your iniquities,
Who heals your diseases,
Who redeems your life from the pit,
Who crowns you with lovingkindness and compassion so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
In naming my gratitude, I told the story of my life afresh. From the limited vocabulary of my limited sight, I entered the great language of thanks and found my tale to be rich. As I wrote and prayed, sang within my heart, and lifted my eyes to the light rising out my window, I realized that the giving of thanks is a form of narration, a truth-telling by which I tell the right story of my life. Caught as I am sometimes within my narrow perception of my need or desire, blinded as I am by loneliness, the act of giving of thanks is a way of healing my sight. To remember God’s grace, to name his goodness, to forget none of his benefits is to tell the true story of my life. That is the tale of God’s great mercy. His love has marked every hour, his hands have shaped every day. I don’t always see it, but when I look back with the sharpened vision of thanks, I see the great mercy that lies behind me, the great hope that lies ahead.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.
May you remember your own story today, your own bright tale of blessing. May you step beyond the bounds of discouragement into the wider air of thanks. May the memory of God’s goodness lift you into joy. May love surround you. May laughter mark your hours. May feasting fill your belly, and your soul, with the hope of great thanks.
Happy Thanksgiving my beautiful friends!