“Our girl is here!” Gwen says the instant I walk in the door. And Larla, Gwen’s ninety-five year old mother, turns to greet me. Her grey eyes are so crammed now with the past there’s almost no room for the present, but she gives me a questioning smile. “We love her,” Gwen says matter-of-factly, patting her mom’s shoulder as I stoop to give her my arrival kiss. “I love you hon,” she says in the faded voice I know well, and pats my hand in her brisk way. “We’re glad you came to see us.” And finally, with another glance at Gwen, she nods as if she has decided for sure and turns to look me straight in the eye: “You’re our girl.”
Those words are a small miracle to me. I visit Kentucky only twice a year, once when the dogwoods are skirted in pink, and once in the fire of fall. It’s rare I can visit in between, and while Gwen has known me from birth, Larla hasn’t. I’m not, as they say in those Kentucky hills, “kin.” I’m just an occasional visitor. Yet Larla, even with Alzheimer’s disease, has never forgotten me. Each time I come, she knows me afresh. Some part of her retains its hold on who I am and the fact that she loves me.
I was marveling at this again last week during my spring visit and decided one morning to write about it. Larla sat next to me at the breakfast table patting my left hand as I used my right to jot random musings whenever I got the chance. Gwen was in and out with eggs and orange juice and I was in search of the perfect word, my mind working to the rhythmic clatter of frying pans, when Gwen popped out and asked her mom, “have you said good morning to our girl?”
And in that instant, the mystery cleared. Something about having my pen in hand allowed me to see that Larla had always known me because I had been told into her story. Gwen, I abruptly understood, was a narrator. The moment I walked in the door, Gwen began to tell me into the story of her own life and that of her mom’s. Word by word, statement by statement, with comments about “our girl Sarah,” and “how much we love her,” she narrated my presence into her mother’s life. Larla never had a chance to forget me. Gwen sets the scene by helping Larla to greet me, she paints the back story with tales of my visits as a tiny girl, and moves the scene forward with constant affirmations of how lovely a thing it is to have me there. She hugs me in front of Larla, includes me in every detail of her care, and laughs so often that Larla can have no doubt that my visits are gladsome things.
Gwen has used her words to frame me into belonging. This is storytelling at its most real; narrative at its highest power of love. As an author, I am keenly aware of the power of narrative. I struggle so often to get just the right words in place when I attempt to describe a character, because I am profoundly aware of my power as the narrator; that masterful voice tells a reader exactly what to think of any character. A reader’s affection or disgust for a book’s characters is based on the words in which they are framed. Narration is a form of creative power.
What Gwen has helped me to see is that this power is present in the real life, workaday world as well as the novel. Here we are, all of us telling stories about each other every day. I see now how much our relationships are formed by the narrative of our conversations, our spoken affection or disgust, our gossip (or hopefully, lack of it), our love when it spills into speech. In this light, the power of a word like “welcome.” is as good as “once upon a time,” because it opens the possibility of friendship, of laughter, of belonging, What crackling possibility. What creative potential, what worlds await us in the most ordinary of realms.
I love that all people – writers, readers, or not – are made to be storytellers. And I think that all God-lovers are required see themselves in this light. We begin with the understanding that God is the first Storyteller of our lives, the one whose narration in Scripture set the scene of the world, sketched our identity, revealed our parts as heroes, heroines… or villains. But I think we partner with him in narration. Faith is one kind of buoyant of storytelling; we speak what we know is true and cannot see. But so is love. Love is a powerful form of narration. Love chooses to speak what is possible about the people it describes. Love narrates lonely people into families. Love uses every word of its story to tell all people into grace. I have decided that I want the narrative I tell about other people to be a hospitable sort, one that tells people into my life as Gwen told me into hers. I want there to be a fireside feel to conversation, a sort of pull-up-a-chair invitation in my words. I want to say to each person that happens into my days, “come on in, I’m going to tell you into my story.”
And by God’s grace, it’ll be a good one.
This is a repost from 2010. Larla has since passed away, but until the day she died, I was “her girl.” I have been thinking a lot lately about the way in which our words set the stage for the story we live, and for the story into which we invite the people around us. I’ve seen a lot of discord this year. And I know that words can kill off a friendship like a cheap character in a novel, or they can tell a hungry soul into the story of fellowship, the story of love. May we all be narrators like Gwen.
A little over a week ago, Joel and I forayed out into the darkling streets of nine o’clock London to catch a late concert at Royal Albert Hall.
We wanted to stave off the end-of-trip rue attending our last night in London by filling it with music. Solemn, startling music as it happened. When Joel discovered that it was John Tavener’s Ikon of Light we were slated to hear, he was quite enthused. Even I, with a far lesser knowledge of classical or choral music, was glad to find that this was the concert on offer. Oddly enough, I had encountered snippets of Tavener here and there and found his choral music arresting, if not always easily accessible.
We barely made it in time, fairly sprinting from the Tube stop to the doors of the Hall, sinking into our red velvet seats in a summer flush just as a voice summoned us to settle in for the opening of the concert. The lights dimmed a little as the host for the evening, a calm man in a dark suit, took the stage and addressed us with quiet, engaging gravity. I was still breathing hard, trying to collect breath and body into stillness, distracted by the rustle and thump of the fidgety audience. I was only half aware of the introductory comments, but the man on stage seemed almost to reach up and touch me, abruptly, when he spoke these words:
“In tonight’s piece, one must think of the string section’s part as the cry of the soul, its reaching toward the light. And the answering choir, as the voice of the light itself.”
With that command, he stepped off stage, the lights died in the high, echoing space, leaving only the spotlighted stage and the circle of three violinists with the black mass of the choir curved in a half moon behind them. When the last high note of the quick tuning was accomplished, the violinists lifted their bows and for a moment, waited. Arrested by their patient poise, the audience stilled, attention inexorably drawn to the waiting three on stage.
The music began almost before I was aware; a single note thrummed from a single violin. A note of yearning, that gathered insistence as the voice of the second violin joined its plea. But timid. The simple melody was a question, a request presented almost in fear. Soul’s cry into the night.
And it was met with the mighty, sudden crash of the choir, a startling, almost trenchant declaration of song that answered the wistful violin so robustly one felt the violin might retract in frightened silence.
But into the shocking hush that followed the choral statement came the violin’s renewed plea. The melody was a low request, a strengthened desire, and the voice of the second violin added a note of resolve that made the music something that reached into the darkness with set intent. The taste of that crashing light had strengthened the soul, heightened its longing. And when the light answered, the answer was richer than before.
On it went, back a forth, a conversation of a concert between violin and voice, soul and light, song and silence. And with the introductory words in my mind the music became a story to me, the image of my own soul’s hungry, yearning journey through the long valley of this life under high, cold stars. The music sang my constant inner reach toward the mountains of a future, an eternity, almost unimaginable, sang my ache for that fragile, silver line of dawn I sometimes glimpse to come and set me free from the darkness. Ah, the darkness.
For the shadows were palpable that night. Death stalked the night just outside of the music in the suffering of the wider world, in the secret, very present sorrows of my own heart, and in the memories haunting the concert. For the performance that night was couched in the memory of death, given on the hundredth anniversary of Britain’s entry upon WWI. The music was chosen to usher listeners all over the country (hearing it via the BBC) into a contemplative hour in which people were invited to switch off their lights in memory and tribute to the multitudes who died on the battlefields of the Great War.
The darkness came very close when the music was done. For the host came back on stage and asked those who had been given electric candles to switch them on. For an instant, light reigned as the hall shimmered with hundreds of starlike lights that danced in the hands of those who waved them through the shadows. And then, they were told to switch them off. At once, the stars died. And the loss of them felt like grief, like the dying out of the countless hopes and loves and joys of those whose lives so tragically ended. The hall grew dark and loudly quiet. An actor took the stage then and read the words from the announcement a hundred years before that had plunged the whole country into a time of such sorrow.
And silence reigned. For a few moments, everyone kept their seats. No fidgeting scratched against the quiet now. No quick breath, no tap of foot. As if the utter, unnatural silence of hundreds in one room could offer some tribute to the dead, we kept a steeled hush. And in it, caged in it, I thought of the ongoing march of death through the world. I thought of those soldiers, hundreds of thousands, dead in their prime, now dust. I thought of the fighting in Gaza, the starving of children in Iraq, the wailing of their mothers. I thought, almost with shame, of my own small pains and felt them joined with the wars and famines and fights raging throughout the world at the very moment of our vigil.
A rustle from the stage drew my eye and I realized that the concert had ended. No light came up, no closing word was spoken. The choir and musicians left the stage, and in silence, the audience got to its feet and we left that darkened hall with its fierce echo of music, its record of sorrow begging for the grace of light.
Out into the twilit darkness of late night London we strode. And for a long time, we simply walked. We skipped the first tube stop and walked the deserted dirt paths around the edge of Hyde Park. When the gravity of the silence that closed the concert had worn off a little in the temperate air with the heat of our breath and hard thump of our feet, we began to discuss the music. How it promised so much, those crashing affirmations of hope cried out through the notes of Tavener’s work. But how pervasive, how disturbing was the silence that followed the darkness.
How is hope kept in a night-black world? Funny, isn’t it, how small sorrows can be borne, loneliness and minutiae and the tiny losses and tiny deaths attending every ordinary day. But when they are coupled with the raging griefs of the world, and joined by a tragedy or even a moment of deep loneliness, the sadness can seem almost too much to bear. Even now, a hundred years on from the war that was supposed to end all wars with new battles seeming to spring up every day, we have to ask ourselves what it means for light to come in the darkness. What hope do we have for peace? For safety? What does it mean to live by light, to reach for it, to believe it’s promise when people die and children suffer? How does the promise of light answer our pain? And how do we order our lives, our aching lives, in response?
We rounded a corner, swift in foot and thought, and stopped abruptly in our tracks. The trees around the park drew back and a long vista of city roofs and steeples and high rise apartment buildings stabbed the navy sky. But above them all, stronger, taller, outreaching them by what seemed a mile rose a mighty shaft of light that shot right up toward the stars and bloomed into a blazing orb. The light shaft was like a sword, like a prophet’s staff, clean and bright and unbreakable, searing through dark and mist.
I recalled that someone had told me that a column of light would blaze in London to mark the WWI centenary. I was awed by that light. My eyes held fast to it, marveling at its power, the way the darkness fell back from it. Immediately, the words from the Gospel of John came to my mind, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” I have always savored that verse and the presence of that word, “comprehend,” with its different shades of meaning. The darkness neither understands the light, nor can it grasp it, wrap its hands around it, assimilate it into itself. Light, even a pinpoint star of it, will always stand free of shadow.
And abruptly I remembered the last piece of music played at the concert. In the solemn drama of chosen silence and dark, I had forgotten that the high, startling music in Ikon of Light and the similar piece that followed were closed by a short, simple choral arrangement of a poem by William Blake. The song was so gentle, so humble, it slipped almost forgettably in at the end of the musical battle before it. But it grew now in my mind, the rich, woven music and the words like a seed bearing fruit at just the right moment:
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee
Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee;
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and he is mild.
He became a little child.
I, a child, and thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little lamb, God bless thee!
Little lamb, God bless thee!
I stopped at the corner before the Tube stop, breathing hard. In that instant, the many symbols, the music, the light, the wavering dark that I had witnessed that evening drew together into a blazing truth. And I knew that whoever had planned that concert had chosen the Blake song to be the quiet answer to the darkness that would inevitably attend us out of the hall. As we dispersed into the night, that song was a gift to accompany us, a shepherd in the valley of the shadow teaching us how to hope. For the Light whom the darkness could not overcome was a Lamb. A little lamb, a tiny, wailing babe born in a stable. And he was the Light of the world, and his “life was the light of men.”
He was lifted up, blazing, into the sky of history just like the standard of light stabbing the London horizon. And when He was bound to a crude, hooked, splintery cross, beaten until his brightness faded into blood and pain, it seemed at first that Light could die. Like the millions of others on the battlefields and barren mountaintops. Like the hearts whose light is extinguished by loneliness or desolation. But the darkness could not comprehend Him. He blazed straight out, unconquerable Light splitting open the tomb.
But even better? That conquering Light wasn’t only outside of us, on the horizon of history. The Light indwelt us. By the gift of that fragile, gentle lamb, Light made his home in our hearts. When any soul now truly cries out for the presence of the light, like the violins in their keening desire, the answer isn’t merely a crashing glory outside ourselves, nor even just the promise of Light to one day conquer. Our answer is the voice of Love speaking within us, eternal Light present now, burning in the core room of our hearts. In us, day has dawned.
And by that Light we live. In its strength, we order our days not by the darkness we see, but by the great dawn that indwells us, the ever-present promise of the healing that will one day spill over and remake the broken world. We are driven by Light, shaped by it, mobilized to embody its splendor for the rest still caught in the night.
My breath came quicker. Eyes fixed upon that column of light, that fierce declaration of remembrance proclaiming that the brave and the dead will not be forgotten, I no longer sat passive in the darkness of my doubt. That London memorial came because of the many who chose to live by hope. Who understood that to live by Light is no longer to sit and question the darkness, passive, inert, waiting for light to answer for us. Rather, we wield that light ourselves, craft its beauty, cup it and offer it to those in the shadows, and in so doing, we become the answer to the darkness ourselves. We build, create, sacrifice, love, form homes, make songs, speak out the great stories and fight the great battles. Over and over again, we answer the darkness with our own small flame, kindled in us by the lamb whose Light was could not be vanquished. By setting ablaze our countless small campfires of hope, we gesture to the great, eternal day that will one day come and conquer the night forever.
My mind and body and skin and bones felt suddenly steeled and strong, straight as the sword-like light before me. And a single phrase, learned long ago, ran through my head as I finally ran for my Tube stop.
Vicit agnus noster, eum sequamur.
Our Lamb has conquered, let us follow.
Below, you will find my favorite picture from these past, swift, richly thoughtful weeks. I snapped it at the closing ceremony: an evensong service with Eucharist celebrated in the matchless beauty King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. There are few places in the world that so strike me silent in wonder. This moment in particular was one of those that Madeleine L’Engle would call “kairos time” – not caught in the usual chronological march of minutes and hours but containing within its beauty a seedlet of eternity.
The context: late afternoon, the end of the service, the honeyed, summer golden hour. We had taken the Eucharist and sung the closing hymn under the high, solemn splendor of the east windows, portraying the crucified Christ. Tinged in blue with the coming night, the purple and dusky panes of the Passion lent a solemnity to the last minutes of the service, a greater weight to the prayers we spoke and the proclamations we made to live rightly, to love purely, to act in courage and grace.
And then we emerged.
Down the nave, through the gates dividing the chapel, we emerged into the wide, high space of the western window. There, made radiant by the setting sun, colors in a myriad glint, was the western window with the risen Christ, arms out, beckoning our eyes to his face and heart. And beneath him was the door opened wide into the summer world. From the Eucharist, from that inner room of the church where we lived again the story of the God who gave his heart and body and life to redeem ours, we walked out strong. Out, out, to emerge into the world with hearts and blood quickened by the life of the risen Christ. Out into the sun, with eternal light in our hearts. Out into the world to live his love, craft his kingdom, speak his story, sing his song.
For an ending to a conference on living the virtues to the full, it was a triumphant closing moment.
And now… it’s off to London I go. Cheerio.
I am sitting on a bus with the low thrum of the engine idling as we wait for the last sleepy passengers to amble in to catch their ride to Cambridge. A week ago I stood on the Oxford platform, strangely alert with that pre-jet lag wakefulness, adrenaline in a surge as I savored my return to a town that “stabs my soul awake,” as Robert Louis Stevenson said.
Oxford. Honeyed stone and hidden gardens behind the massive old oak doors and people in a bustle after learning and books and friendship every hour of the day. Evensongs echoing in the many chapels at each sun’s setting. Crammed streets and rambling bookshops, beehive pubs in a hum of revelry and conversation, and Port Meadow stretching it’s green serenity just beyond the borders of town with the river a silvered thread tying meadow and heart together.
What I have always loved about Oxford is the life that aches and yearns in a bright flow through the veins of it’s streets. And how it draws and livens me as well. I’m here for the C.S. Lewis Foundation’s Summer Institute, a conference that happens every three years for a week in Oxford and a week in Cambridge. Centered around a theme from Lewis’ work – this year it’s “Reclaiming the Virtues: Human Flourishing in the 21st Century” – the conference is a gathering of speakers and writers and thinkers and curious souls here to consider what it means to embody the rhythms and habits of faith.
I’m typing this on my iPhone and have decided I was a bit ambitious to attempt a whole post, so I shall save longer contemplations in the talks for later. But the effect if it all in my soul seems encapsulated to me in the words from Lewis’ “Weight of Glory” sermon (which we heard passionately preached again from the very pulpit in which it was first given):
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which,if you say it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilites, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – These are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
Convicting stuff, eh? And that is the theme of this time really, how do we choose and create the formative practices that begin that everlasting splendor in our own hearts and in our education, leadership, love, and art?
That’s what I’m pondering in this dear old city with its “dreaming spires.” And in between I’m wandering my old tea shop and bookstore haunts, strolling over Port Meadow at dusk with the rest of my family, and every single day feeling the pulse and music of this place and the thoughts it’s atmosphere provokes as it bring me to a fresh and thorough life. I hope you are finding the same in whatever summer corner you read this. Over and out for now, from Oxford.
I could burst with delight and relief and pride and… many other things too. Storyformed.com is finally live!
I’ve been working on this website (and an accompanying book) for the last eight months. With the help of a brilliant friend, the website has become a online literary world and I am so happy to finally present it to the world.
It’s definitely still in progress as I will be filling out all the various pages with book reviews and research, but the bones are there and it’s explorable.
The heart of the Storyformed venture is simple: to get great books into the hands and hearts of children everywhere. My goal is to help parents and educators discover the best children’s books to be found. I’ve created Storyformed.com as a place to celebrate, and defend, the soul-forming power of imagination, story, and beauty to form children to love what is right, hunger for what is good, and grasp what is true. Because to read a great story might just be to start living one too.
To that end, Storyformed.com is both a literary online resource, and the home of a new publishing imprint, Storyformed Books.
We’ll be republishing excellent out-of-print classics, releasing new fiction by contemporary authors, and publishing a series of essay collections on reading and imagination. My book, Caught Up in a Story, written largely to explain the Storyformed worldview, is the first to release with the imprint. We’ll follow it soon with Just David, one of the favorite children’s classics of my childhood.
The website, meanwhile, was designed to be richly stocked with book reviews, research, quotes, and reading lists, countless resources to guide parents and teachers as they enter the world of children’s books. If I could, I’d have every single reader into my library for a cup of tea, but for now, a ramble round the literary rooms of the website will have to do. Here’s a quick tour of what will be on the storyformed.com:
- The BLOG is an ongoing quest and conversation in the realms of imagination and story. You might find book reviews, quotes, pictures from my literary travels, featured artists, thoughts on imagination, or any number of other tidbits. Check back often.
- The LIBRARY is a searchable database of book reviews and recommendations. If it’s in there, it’s good. This page will be continually updated. You can search by categories and tags.
- The BOOKSTORE houses the newest releases from Storyformed Books.
- The BOOK LISTS page, also continually updated, will offer families various top ten lists for easy reading ideas.
- The RESEARCH page will be continually updated with resources specifically for parents and teachers. From studies and statistics on reading, to essays on imagination, to books on education, to websites of children’s classic illustrators, this is where parents can find their own source for education and delight.
Anyway. I’m just bursting over here and couldn’t bear not to let the world know the website is up. There will be an official launch in August (along with the release of my new book Caught Up in a Story), complete with giveaways and all that good stuff. But for now, it’s an open house for exploration. If you know any interested friends, please pass on the word about the new website. Read on!