Well friends, I’ve made it safe through my twenties.
Perilous decade, that. So many paths, so many vivid, competing choices. So much travel required of the soul.
Standing now, three days this side of thirty, I feel great sympathy with the T.S. Eliot lyric:
We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
When I look back to my wide-eyed twenty-year-old self, when I read through the journals I scrawled and scratched in those heart-hungering years, I find the seeds of the dreams and hopes, drives and desires that I have now pursued into writing, study, and work. I get what Eliot is saying, because I am qualitatively the same now as I was then. I still love books and I still want to love God far more than I do. I still bear a fiery curiosity about imagination and how it works. I still want to find wild spaces and my whole being yearns for long, lonely walks in the wind. I still want to love lonely people. I still crave friendship and soul mates. I still want a cottage with the spice of a Rivendell air. I still want to go to Oxford. And I still want to write the kind of story that will set a soul in a new air altogether.
I haven’t really changed. But somehow, I feel I have arrived on the doorstep of my own soul and its an arrival and a beginning all at once. The end of this decade’s exploring is not the revelation of a new self, but a a final settling into the self God gave me to begin with. I’ve struggled with that self, at times hating my lot, at times wondering what good my particular impractical presence would ever be to the world, some days just wondering if I would ever be at ease in my own skin. But I walked and struggled hard with God through those times. I wrestled with him, and came to truly know the shape of his hand, the feel of his grip on my resisting heart and I felt him guide me, prod me, cajole me forward into paths of life I couldn’t have found on my own. Sometimes, those ways ran through my own heart and self. I’ve explored my soul extensively in the last ten years and I begin to know its paths, its seasons, the contours of the land inside myself and the nurture required to bring beauty from its soil.
At thirty, with so many battles fought and dreams lost, with so many memories gained and loves discovered, I’ve arrived back at the door of my own castle. And I finally feel equipped to begin to truly rule the kingdom of my heart.
The strongest emotion I feel about this somewhat momentous birthday (and I know, it’s just one more day in a lifetime, but I do think its grand to mark the turning points in a life!), is a high-spirited determination to do and make and love with renewed vigor. To create with undeterred creativity. To love with unstinting goodwill. There are long lists of things I have tried and failed or yearned or dreamed of doing since the first years of adulthood. But I’ve honed my desires down to the few I know I was made to attain. I know what the crops and crafts of my inner kingdom will be.
Further, I know that much in my has ripened in the past decade, and it is time to bring the harvest in. So, I’ve been thinking on what I want to accomplish in the next ten years.
Stories, for sure. I simply refuse to turn 31 without completing the one story that has burned in my heart for ten years. I’ve been beaten back by critics and my own timid heart, but this year I shall forge ahead.
Love, given out with vim and vigor as it has been given to me. I have read the Gospel of John three times in the past year, and the words Jesus spoke in that last, special night in the upper room even more. I am startled, almost breathless as the reality of what Christ came to give invades and claims me. Oneness with the his own soul, oneness with the Father. Love, lived and given in an unending circle beginning with God, flowing through Christ into me, and into the people around me. The life of it astounds me. I want to learn it more keenly, to live it, to consciously choose it every day.
Friendship claimed and cultivated with real intention in what seems to me an age increasingly given to isolation. I’ve been reading Tolkien and the Great War, a biography covering the early days of Tolkien’s creation of Middle Earth and how his experience on the western front shaped his mythology. But the book also delves deeply into the friendship Tolkien had with a group of three other boys, begun in high school and carried through university and war. Formed around long, bookish discussions, shared ideals, and high spirits, the friendship was formalized into a club called the “TCBS” (for Tea Cakes and Barrovian Society, if my memory serves). The group grew larger at one point, but right before the war, the original four basically kicked the other members out because they had become too cynical and shallow. The “Council of London” was called, and the friends gathered to share their ideals, articulate their dreams, their goals, their creative visions. The fellowship established lasted through the war, lasted through countless letters, lasted, I think, in the work that Tolkien began in those difficult years, encouraged by the friends who were the first to discover the world beginning to grow in his imagination. Community like that, I think, must be fought for. Sought, and claimed, and nourished.
Rhythms. Modern life is such a wild, mad ride of activity and technology. Boundaries seem to slip away from us. But if I could make an early morning walk and the reading of Scripture a thing I did every single day of my life, a rhythm as sure as sunrise and sunset, I think I’d have a foundation that could keep me steady through storm and sunlight and every season of my days on earth. I’ve managed it halfway for many years, but I want to make it a sure thing now.
I’ll stop there for now. How’s that for a super idealistic ramble to mark a dreamer’s birthday?
I write it simply because as I look back over what I would have called the very difficult decade of my twenties, I am startled with the beauty of the life God has given. I am so thankful that I have made it this far. That God has held and kept me through sorrow and struggle, through fiery doubt, through temptation, through loneliness, through the countless relationships, circumstances, or struggles that could have deadened my soul. I say it because I truly want you to know that God has kept me in life. That his goodness really is unfailing. I write it because I am prone to self doubt, but I never want that to rule my words. I’d rather use them to say with David:
The Lord is the portion of my inheritance and my cup. You support my lot. The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places. Indeed, my portion is beautiful to me.
Turning thirty, for me, is to recognize just how beautiful it is. And to begin to learn how to share the beauty I’ve found.
I’ve been reading Perelandra again. That is, C.S. Lewis’ fantastical tale of man sent to the planet Venus to prevent that world’s Eve from falling as our own did. Ransom (the man) finds himself in a warm, wet world of exotic floating islands on a sea of copper and emerald. He meets Perelandra’s Eve, a green woman of radiant beauty whose wisdom is merry, whose peace is that of a deathless world, who dwells in an unbroken, inner communion with “Maleldil,” known on our own planet as God.
But Satan is quick to follow. He arrives in the form of another earthly man, a scientist whose long dabbling in darkness has finally turned his body into a vessel of evil. Through him, what Ransom soon calls “the unman,” (because his flesh is human but his spirit is devil) a dialogue begins in which the unman attempts to persuade the green woman that God secretly desires her to become independent, to grow “wise” enough to take destiny into her own hands and disobey His command.
What struck me recently as I read that passage was the way in which Lewis presented the beginning of temptation. The unman’s very first line of attack is on the green woman’s inner being, specifically, the source of her thoughts. And that attack begins with the unman causing the woman to stand apart from her own self in thought, to replace Maleldil’s inner voice with her own. Until that point, she never had cause to think about herself in the kind of analysis that stands apart. She was herself, a ceaseless unity of body, soul, and mind in communion with God and experience of her world. But the unman fractured her unity, gave her a mirror and showed her her own form and caused her to contemplate herself from the outside and to conceive of herself as an agent independent of Maleldil.
In Lewis’ words: “The image of her beautiful body had been offered to her only as a means to awake the far more perilous image of her great soul. The external, and as it were, dramatic conception of the self was the enemy’s true aim. He was making her mind a theatre in which that phantom self should hold the stage. He had already written the play.”
The phantom self. An inner obsession with an image we make of ourselves. The compulsion of self-expression that follows, not the healthy sort that comes from being made in the image of God, but the kind that weighs each word and deed against a certain persona we want to create. When I read the passage above at first, I liked Lewis words, but didn’t feel any particular affinity with the Green Woman’s plight.
Until I closed my book for a few minutes of Facebook. I turned from his words to scan a few recent photos uploaded by friends, to check stats on my blog, to see who had commented on my profile. I stopped short halfway down the page when I realized that I was looking at a phantom image of myself, a persona not unlike the one Lewis described in the Green Woman’s mind. Through Facebook and blogs, through the picture I choose for my profile (or the ones I untag because they are unflattering), the movies I “like,” or the clever quotes I put forth as my favorites, I have created a surface face that presents a certain persona to the world. The problem is that the persona exists in my mind as well, the ideal kind of girl I want to become, and more, want others to assume I am.
We live in an age in which we are daily creating our public personas. Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Instagram; we have unparalleled control of the image we set forth to the world and limitless opportunity to attain a local celebrity. We choose the pictures and quotes, the photos and friends who will cast us in the light we desire, prove us to be the persona we have chosen for ourselves.
Let me just say to begin with that I know how harmless this can be. I know that social media gives us the chance to express our tastes, claim our friends, proclaim the quotes or events that shape our lives, and that can be a right and joyful celebration of all that is lovely and true. I know it can be used honestly. But the recurrent concern I have with every use of media technology apples here again; our use of it is never neutral – eventually it forms us to itself.
The Green Woman’s plight makes me think that my unexamined use of social media – a stage on which I project the image I desire – can be perilous. I find that I need to approach it with a dose of caution because it puts me in the habit of creating a self in my own image rather than the one God speaks to me through Scripture and quiet and prayer. That inevitably means that I quietly cull the parts I don’t want anyone to see. I want to reveal only good; the photos that show me happy and beautiful, strong and brave. I quote poets and Scripture with abandon, presenting the ideal. My communications are short and peppy, encouraging, my words always loving.
But I rarely reveal the bad. Or even if I do, I show only my poignant struggles or artistic darkness. I’ll admit my loneliness or grief at the broken nature of the world. But I won’t admit my own sharp tongue, my struggle to love, the unkind words that escape me, so different from the upbeat messages I leave on public profiles. The online world allows me to post a quote about God’s goodness and have the whole world assume I’m in a holy state of mind, even as I walk with heavy heart and darkened soul.
In the end, if I do not examine my use of media to create a public image, I think I really do create a phantom self. A self who sparkles across the stage of my mind and captures my imagination. When I am busy, when screen time becomes an increasing habit, I contemplate that self more and more. I tweak it. And when I have spent enough time creating the image of that self, I begin to work to make it real. I dress and speak and act in a constant determination to embody my own ideal of myself, to live into the energetic, popular, spiritual person I want to be.
But what if in seeking to embody my own image of myself, I cease to seek the embodiment of Christ?
The Green Woman’s tragedy was her inner division from God by the creation of a self that stood apart from him. Before, she loved and spoke, moved and expressed her own, unique embodiment of the God whose love set her in life. After, she struggled to choose between God (who now seemed separate from herself) and the phantom image set in her mind. Before she moved as one with the “Love that moves the spheres,” afterward, she hesitated, torn between two inner images of what she might become.
I find myself challenged by Lewis’ story to step back from the online world in which I am ever seeking affirmation, tweaking my public face, perfecting my image, hungry for another “like” to prove that I am the lovely person I desire to be. I need to turn my eyes back to Christ. It’s funny; I used to fear that if I became one with God, I would lose my own self, lose the wild and joyous freedom of independent thought and desire. I didn’t want to be a divine automaton, thinking God’s thoughts and having none of my own.
What I’ve found through years of loving God is the ever-deepening truth that my life is hidden in Christ. He truly is the vine, the life and song from which every life on earth draws its vibrance. To be severed from him is to die. There is no real self apart from him, no true thought, no fresh creation, only a phantom self that will slowly, slowly fade. A phantom self that will never fulfill my hunger for love, my will to create, my hope for a beauty beyond the confines of my own frail mind. Only with the life of God as blood and heartbeat within me can I become the true, unique creation I was carefully designed to be.
So, here ends my small tirade. Sometimes, when life is swift and stressful, when screen time becomes a habit I cannot escape, I feel the need to rebel. To yank my head out of the screen and back into the quiet where the Holy Spirit speaks. I usually discover he was calling all along…
In honor of Mother’s Day, a repost from last year. I still mean every word.
We just don’t seem able to manage a Mother’s Day together, do we? Well. In your absence and decidedly in your honor, I have a story to tell. Perhaps you’ll think it an odd one for a tribute to your motherhood. A workaday tale it may be, but in my mind it is a bright, unfading gem. For what you gave me one Texas morning almost twenty years ago remains a grace that forms the bedrock of my heart. Memories don’t get much better than that, odd or not. Here goes.
I stood with munchkin nose pressed hard against the back door glass. Outside, the skies tumbled and fought, the rain fell in torrents for the fifth day, and the roar of newborn creeks called me even through the panes. Behind me, you gathered books and pencils for a morning of school work, switching on the lamps to battle the outdoor gloom. But even as you did, the boys slipped beside me, glued their noses to the window too and when you called we turned three small, grieved faces away from a world that seemed tailor made for splashing and exploration.
“Aww Mom,” we groaned, timid but yearning for that alluring realm beyond, “can’t we just go outside and explore today?”
I still remember my startlement at your “yes.” The way you were silent for a second, took a deep breath, pushed the books aside, and put your hands on your hips.
“Old shoes and old clothes on before you go,” you ordered and we hastened for our gear, grabbing boots and jackets, hearts pattering in elation at this wholly unexpected day. We were back in two minutes, and behold, so were you. A tiny jolt touched my heart at sight of you decked in scuffed shoes and old jeans, intent upon joining our expedition. I hadn’t expected that; the Queen would lead the adventure, a queen who would also wash the several loads of muddy clothes resulting, mop up our bootprints on the kitchen floor, and defend our bedraggled state to my grandmother when we returned. But I was too little to know all of that. All I knew was that your presence hallowed the adventure. And ah, there was so much we longed to show you.
Out we tromped into a world all a-whisper, the air tingling with rain, the sky swift and changeful as the rivulets below. In an ecstasy of abandon we jumped in every puddle to be had within the first ten feet, twirled and whooped and ran all out, limbs loose and swinging, to the pasture gate that led to the flooded tank. There the real drama awaited, a real flood down by the giant oak, now up to his waist in new-made rivers.
“Come on Mom!” we screeched above the roar of the water, picking our way through the mud of the old cattle-trails, ducking beneath cedar branches and wintered vines. You came. Smiling, eyebrows arched in interest at every fossil we pointed out, every yell of false-alarm when a branch turned out not to be a snake. You came right into the streams, splashed us with the cold, swift water, and when we eyed the swiftest torrent with daring, hungry eyes, you nodded your permission. In we went, right up to our short little waists, fighting against the current in an overjoyed grapple with the one joyous fact of the water.
I remember that for one instant I looked back at you. Already in the current, I turned and sought your face. I was a little in awe that you would let us dare the flood. I was proud that you were there to see us do it. And if I was also a little afraid of the torrent, well, I had you at my back. You caught my eye. And to this day I cannot forget the glint of fun that blazed in your glance. Then the slight nod of reassurance that told me I would never be out of your sight. Then the smile, like a whisper between those who know the great camaraderie of adventure. I laughed. And dove straight in.
And that Mom, is one of the clarion moments for which I will thank you all my days.
For in that instant you gave me your own heroic view of life. I know now that courage was always your mark. You were a dreamer; lover of the underdog, a missionary in communist Poland, a writer, a teacher, daring in faith and fierce in friendship. And even when three squirmy children invaded your life, you kept that courage strong. You brought it right into your motherhood and determined that we should learn it too. That rainy day adventure was a lesson in valor, in gladness, in dreams. You wanted your children to taste the haunting grace of the world, so you freed us to heed the cry of the rain. You knew that danger is always close, so you came too. You knew that life is full of risk, so when we met the dare of the water, you let us hope, and reach, and try, and you taught us the boldness with which this thing called life must be met.
Only now, grown up as I am with the demons of oughts and shoulds ever breathing down my neck do I understand the import of the choice you made that morning. You could have said no. You could have resolutely shut that door, glared down our yearning little hearts, rebuked our impractical imaginations. You could have insisted on an ordinary day and a checklist of chores. But you saw that our hearts were ripe for the forming. You saw that holy hunger for far horizons, you saw our need to try, to dare, to reach for something just beyond our grasp. So you opened the door. Be bold, said your eyes, be joyous. Be brave with my blessing.
But you also gave us yourself. Your presence was the strength at our back, your laughter the song that sent us leaping through the rain. You stood there on the creek bank, eagle-eyed, cheerful, strong, and the sight of you glimpsed through the splash and rain sent a courage like blood pulsing through our veins. We tried all the harder because you were there. We dared because we knew you would await us at the end. And when we tromped home, gloriously wet and utterly exhausted, it was you who sat us by the fire, brewed the cocoa, and lingered with us in the flickering light. Your interest made us heroes. We told of the current that nearly got us, the branch that nearly broke, the newest fossil found, and it was your admiring words that turned us into knights at battle’s end, triumphant and ready to fight again.
To know that life is a great quest is one thing. To be given the love to meet it is another altogether. You, my precious mother, gave us both.
Courage in living and love that does not fail – these themes defined my childhood. That one bright day was a note in a larger song. When life was dark, you lit candles. When times were grim, you made a feast (even if it was only homemade bread and cheese). When the battle I faced was doubt of God, you looked me in the eye and said “He’s bigger than your doubts.” But then you took my hand; “don’t worry, I’ll have faith for you until yours lives again.” When sickness came, when friendships failed, you challenged me to write, to love, to hope with every fibre of my being. When Oxford seemed a dream beyond all grasping, you said “just try.” And when once there, I thought for sure my essays would be flops, you ordered me to take a good long walk, drink tea, and “give it one more go.”
Meet the battle and face it with a song. Light a candle and lay a feast in the very teeth of darkness. Dare, always, to try once more. To love again. That’s what you taught me.
So here’s to you beloved and valiant mother o’ my heart. You make me think of Tennyson’s line in Ulysses, “we are, one equal temper of heroic hearts.” To have shared your heart and learned your courage is a gift that will follow me all my days. I hope I learn to be as brave as you.
Happy Mother’s Day.
Well, that was a whirlwind race of a few months! Last time I blinked, I think it was February, and now it’s nearly May after a wild few months marked by a wedding, a funeral, and a great deal of life crammed in between. I’m just beginning to contemplate catching up. Almost.
In the meantime, and just because we can, my mom and I are doing an e-conference tonight, all about books and story and the building of strong minds. I’ve spent the last several months finishing up my book Caught Up in a Story, so I’ll be speaking on what it means to be storyformed and my mom will be talking about forming mental muscles and bringing great books into the home. These have been topics of constant discussion in our home of late so we wanted to explore a subject we both think deeply about together.
In my mom’s words: Join Sarah and me Monday night to learn more about building a story-formed life, cultivating strong mental muscles, giving a foundation of ideals and inspiration and passing on a love for learning to your children. I will speak about my schedule each day, about the foundations that help build the habits and anchors of academic excellence into your home life, and ways to inspire and reach the hearts of your children. I am fresh with ideas because of a week with Sarah, Joel and Joy speaking into my life!
It should be fun. You can register here.
And because every ounce of my writing brain has been poured into the crafting of this book and I haven’t written a word here of late, here’s an excerpt from the finished manuscript in lieu of many a missed blog:
From the intro to Caught Up in a Story:
“What hero are you going to be?” my brother asked, as if the world depended on my answer. He was golden then, hair like sunlight, eyes blue as a young summer morning. I was his dark-haired sister. Twelve good years thrummed in his steps, and fifteen in mine as we strode down the gypsy ribbon of a country road, laughing in the face of a fast-setting sun and swiftly rising storm. The crackle and crisp of dying leaves was in every gust of wind; the oaks and ash and maples danced darkly overhead in crimson, flaming grace.
“A princess, of course; a brave one like Eowyn,” I answered, “with sword at the ready.”
“And a bow and arrow too?” he queried.
“Oh yes,” said I.
He smiled in a fatherly way, “Good. Princesses should only sword fight if they absolutely have to.”
He slipped his arm through mine then. I took it and grinned a knowing look to the sere meadows at the darling presumptions and gallantries of my little brother. He was still short then; I stood a good head taller, curbing my strides to match his. The softness of childhood still rounded his face and in moments like those, just us two in a wind-tumbled world, dreams looked out unmarred from his eyes.
“I’m going to fight the orcs like Aragorn and Legolas; I’m going to defeat enemies and fight the darkness,” he chattered, “Do you want to hear the story I’m writing? It’s about an enchanted sword …”
We walked that day with the loping ease of young idealists. There was magic in the air, a scented wind with a heady mix of autumn’s death and brightness that worked like a truth potion on the both of us; we thoughtlessly told the dreams we usually hoarded in silence. Our secrets? Stories. The stories we loved in books, the favorite tales that captured our vision and challenged our dreams. But also the stories we told about ourselves, the narratives we formed in imagination of who we might become and what we might accomplish. Those were the far more telling secrets and we marveled to hear ourselves voice our hopes to accomplish brave deeds, to tell great stories, to live as heroes in the tale of our time.
As we strode that autumn road we recalled the tales that had formed our dreams and we examined their respective heroes; Lucy in Narnia or Aragorn in Middle Earth, Martin the Warrior of Redwall, or even Freckles, the courageous guard of the Limberlost. If they could fight and love, defeat darkness, make beauty, why not us? With each pound of step we imagined the future, each pulse of blood brought our dreams of bravery into speech. Everything seemed possible then and it filled us with a breathless laughter. When we reached the bend in the road, pausing an instant before we turned, I asked him back: “What hero will you be?”
The name made my lips twitch but I didn’t smile, for suddenly, there was no laughter in his voice. I glanced sideways and slightly down, curious, and found him staring hard into the coming dark. Brightness was in his eyes, like light pooled in water just at dusk. He walked faster. His chin went up. His arm was restless in mine and abruptly I knew that he meant it. With every ounce of his soul, he intended to be the utmost of real life heroes and he was walking ahead as if to meet the man he would become.
Perhaps that set chin was daring me to laugh, to parry back and slough off his solemnity with a pinch of scorn. I didn’t. I turned my face back to the snake of road fleeing out from under our feet and kept silence. Imagination is the first step to creation, the instigating spark that drives the actions of a hero. As I stood on the cusp of adulthood that day, I understood the truth at the base of the dreams that my brother and I had shared. If we could imagine great stories, there was the chance, the hope, that we could live them too. The flush-faced thrill of our walk came from the tales we hoped to live; fancies begun in childhood, now ripening into ideals and declared to each other for the first time. There was a sort of doom upon us both now. We had dared to say what heroes we would be, and somehow, from that dappled minute and those spilled stories, there was no turning back.
Almost fifteen years have passed between our words on that memorable day and the moment in which I set them forth on this page. Nate and I are both adults now, and you might assume that the difficult realities of adulthood—the work and compromise and practicality needed for life in a modern world—might have dulled the edge of our ideals. Successful citizens, productive adults, contributing members to family or society, you might think those reasonable goals would replace our youthful, wild-eyed hunger for heroism.
But oh, if you do, then I think you’ve never been wholly captured by an epic tale. You’ve never tasted the beauty of an otherworld so great it sets your soul alive with longing and your mind to wondering if you could make such beauty yourself. You must never have witnessed great battles in imagination and hoped that you could stand your ground in a battle of your own. You’ve never had the doughty heroes and gracious heroines you loved in countless childhood tales standing guard in your mind, staring you down with a challenge to act as bravely, to give as fully, to hope as ardently in your own story as they did in theirs. Adults though we are, adults who work and love, struggle and hope through our confusing twenty-something lives, Nate and I, and Joel and Joy (my other siblings), still believe that we are called to be heroes and heroines in the story of the world.
Why? Because we are storyformed souls…
A repost from a favorite St. Patrick’s Day Celebration. I don’t know what I shall be doing on this St. Paddy’s Day, but I promise you, ’twill be grand fun whatever it is. A joyous St. Patrick’s Day to you all!
The new book cover…!
My St. Patrick’s day celebration was impromptu. I love all things Irish and think St. Patrick himself the hero indeed, but the great day found me mired in about a thousand unanswered emails. I got home from church to face the prospect of a Monday morning to-do list that stopped me cold in my tracks. The fact that it was Sunday and I was supposed to be sane and calm and thinking holy thoughts added guilt to my fretting. I despaired of fun and set to work. But a phone call late in the windy afternoon changed the fate of my day: “Sarah,” said my mom, “we’re downtown; do you want to just go for a quick bite of fish ‘n chips at Jack Quinn’s? Leave the emails. There will be music!”
I couldn’t say no. Jack Quinn’s is a dim old downtown Irish pub, floored in dented, honeyed wood, with tiny booth rooms windowed in stained glass just like the pubs I visited in England. It has the dusky depths, old-photos, and jumbled shelves of mugs and jugs to give it the feel of a real pub. But steeped in age and shadow as it is, the ceilings are high and sheathed in forest green tin. Voices and folk music bounce in a rollick of notes from the floor to the heights in a brightness and dance as good as light. For such a place, I always want to spare an hour. I paused at my desk and almost stayed. I stared at my list, I despaired of my life. But as the sun set, I flung down my pen and out the door I went.
And oh what a party awaited me. The moment we stepped in the door we joined one great, grand swirl of Irish celebration. The long room was crammed to its every edge. A bag piper rose to play as we entered, kilted and bold in the middle of the room, all purple-cheeked and bulging-eyed as he filled the pipes with song. Hundreds of feet kept a good tapping time, laughter boiled up like a drumroll from every corner, and voices rang like trumpets as people talked over the scream of the pipes. The faces in that dim room glowed like fireflies in a hot summer garden.
Everyone wore green. Eight or eighty, no respectable soul would come to an Irish pub on St. Paddy’s day without a token of emerald to honor the feast. Some wore glittering bits of jade or jewel, some were decked in the gaudy gleam of green plastic beads, some were clothed head to toe in forest, moss, sage, or emerald, every hue of the color of Eire. And then there were the men who swept by in kilts. They had that delighted pride of eye belonging to those who are dressed just right for a grand occasion. At least I had on my lucky green shirt, thank goodness.
I smiled as I stood, I could not help it. I leaned against one of the old walls to wait for our table with the breath of song and laughter in my lungs. I bumped elbows with strangers and swayed to the jigs flung out from the fiddler now on stage. When our name was called, we trundled upstairs to community tables stretching the length of a long, low room. Plates were piled with cabbage and corned beef, or fresh fried fish and chips. We settled in with a jolly bunch of strangers, exchanged names and stories, and set to the work of feasting. The music on this floor was softer, but no less pert. A band of fiddle, whistle, and bodhran kept our toes tapping the entire meal. Another explosion of laughter rumbled from the far end of the room as the fish salted my mouth.
And, “blessed be the day,” thought I. Joy welled up in me as if a new spring of water was struck alive at the core of my heart. Exuberance was a tide, rising in my blood and thought, a freed delight in the sheer gift of life. Forgotten were bills and furrowed brows and the dullness that comes from forgotten zest. Remembered was the ever-present possibility of glee, the limitless capacity of my heart to come alive to a fathomless joy, to respond to friendship, to lift up my soul to the cry of music.
A sudden silence came upon me then; one of those moments in which a part of myself stepped back, suspended in time, to ponder the scene and my abruptly joyous self at that table. Keenly did I look at the hundred faces lined in laughter, closely did I listen to the rumble of voices and music. I saw the clustered groups of people in sudden fellowship, watched as music wove us all into a pattern in which no one felt loose or at odd at ends. I saw the way good food and people pushed close for the eating made friends of strangers. I saw fun, plain and simple in the jigs and chips and tapping toes, saw the childlike mirth in the eyes of my family, felt the warmth of it in a blaze on my face.
And I knew again why feasts are of grave importance, vital events to be claimed and marked. Festal days must be kept with great resolution for this single glimmering fact; we are made for joy. We were fashioned for gladness with hearts formed for fellowship and spirits for singing. Feasts teach us to remember this core fact of our being as they fling us together and banish our listless thoughts and the loneliness that hovers like a fog around our hearts. Polite, isolated, technologically-tied souls in a sin-shattered world that we are, feasts remind us of friendship, they force us into a joy we might have forgotten in the midst of our busy, driven accomplishing of life. A festal day reminds us that in the beginning, far before pain broke into the perfect world, life itself was a feast to be eaten. Existence was a great song, our lives an answering dance, and in Christ, the broken music begins anew.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel like a dull-eyed ghost in my own modern life. I move about my days, working at this bill or that project in my quiet room. I bump about my hushed suburban house, drive my car along deserted concrete streets to shop in big, impersonal stores, and I’m lucky if anyone even waves. I work mostly on my little black box of a computer. When I get really lonely, I check my email, hoping for an offer of comradeship from my machine. Or I sit anonymously in coffee shops, wanting company, but wary of breaching the divide of polite silence that dictates correct, autonomous behavior. Add some grief, a dose of guilt, and I find I forget to fight for rejoicing, or even to remember that all good things have their birth in God.
Satan, I think, strikes a few of his best blows when he can persuade us that God is boring. That life with our Savior is a dull and dutiful upward climb toward a summit of righteousness always a little out of reach. We are close to defeat when we start to believe that God cares nothing for joy, that holy people are wage slaves to long days of righteousness. Work, pray, endure, and pay your bills, check off that list of upright deeds. And the image of God in our weary minds becomes that of a long-faced master whose only concern is our efficient goodness. We forget that we are called to a King who laughs and creates, sings and saves. That our end is a kingdom crammed with our heart’s desires. We forget that our God is the Lord of the dance and the one whose new world begins with a feast.
At Jack Quinn’s, I finally remembered this fact. Celebration cleansed my mind and renewed my hope. And I wonder, today, if celebration is a craft I need to learn, a practice of faith affirming the joy of my saving God. Perhaps my moments of chosen joy incarnate the beauty to which I believe I am being redeemed. On high days and holy days, yes, but also during the common days. A candle lit, a meal prepared, music played, and laughter exchanged; perhaps amidst the fear, the grief and need of fallen life, those moments cup a draught of new-world joy. God came that we might have life, and life to the full. St. Patrick gave his life to the proclamation of that very fact. I think I’ll join him by celebrating his day, and the God whose cosmic feast is about to begin. All joy is mine. Blessed be the day indeed.
…because it gives you the chance to love and to work and to play and to look up at the stars; to be satisfied with your possessions; to despise nothing in the world except falsehood and meanness, and to fear nothing except cowardice; to be governed by your admirations rather than by your disgusts; to covet nothing that is your neighbor’s except his kindness of heart and gentleness of manners; to think seldom of your enemies, often of your friends, and every day of Christ – to spend as much time as you can, with body and with spirit, in God’s out of doors, these are the little guideposts on the footpath to peace.
-Henry Van Dyke
“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.”
― Charles William Eliot
You are cordially invited to…
The Storyformed Child Conference :: April 12, 2014 :: Sterling, Massachusetts
Hello friends, I am delighted to announce the very first Storyformed conference, the first event I am launching as part of my new venture at storyformed.com. For years now, I have wanted to hold a conference on the topic of story; its power, its spiritual significance, and how parents can use it to deeply shape the lives of their children. This conference is the answer to that hope, a day long event in which I will deeply explore the power of great books, the need for beauty, and the vital importance of imagination in the life of a child. Speaking from my own experience as a child deeply formed by story, and my study of children’s literature and imagination at Oxford, I truly hope to inspire those who come to a love for story, to an understanding of its soul-forming power, and to a vision of how to create a storyformed home. I’ll have new talks, special workshop sessions, and a conference workbook designed to help parents plan for the storyformed life. I hope to leave those who attend with a deep understanding of the power story has to shape, equip, and kindle heroism in the hearts of children.
My dear friend Stephanie is hosting this conference at a local church, and ensuring that it will be a delightful first event. A lovely lunch will be catered (you have three choices at registration), and resources will be available at the conference. My goal is to make this a day to nourish your soul, kindle your own imagination, and immerse you in the beauty of great books.
But register soon! Register by March 8th to receive the limited, special offer of a copy of my new book as part of your registration!
Caught Up In A Story: Fostering a Storyformed Life of Great Books and Imagination With Your Children is my soon-to-be-published book exploring the power of story and helping parents know how to use that power to shape the hearts of their children. Complete with booklists and short reviews, personal stories, and ideas for bringing literature into the home, this book will companion and encourage parents ready to live the storyformed life with their children. The book will be available at the conference, but early registrants will receive a copy free with their registration.
You can go directly to The Storyformed Child conference website, or click here to register. The website offers an abundance of answers to any questions you might have about the particulars of the event.
I am delighted beyond words to have the opportunity to finally give a full conference on a topic so dear to my heart. I hope this will be the first of many, but I invite you to take part in this very special first event.
So please, spread the word every way you can and let any of your friends in the North East know about this special event! I hope very much to see you there.
I write this from 35,000 feet up in the free blue air. A grey quilt of clouds obscures the earth below, but sometimes the cloud down frays and the earth winks up, a brown, wry face patterned with laughter lines and the rutted gullies of old tears. I never get tired of having the window seat on an airplane. My awe at technology is usually spoiled by my suspicion that it might be ruining my imagination, but I still have a tiny girl’s wonder at the fact that we humans can fly. Airplanes feel a little like magic to me. I could sit here, nose pressed against my window, reveling in my rare, eagle’s eye view for hours.
At the moment though, I’m also just glad to be sitting. I can feel the dark circles under my eyes. For the third time in four weeks, I have gotten up far too early to lug a half dozen suitcases and crates to various airplane counters. I have packed and unpacked, washed (and, well, “unwashed”) more loads of laundry in the past months than I care to mention, changed time zones, chased rental car shuttles, and stumbled up, hair awry and eyes slightly wild to quite a few hotel desks. I have a bag of cherry tomatoes in the bottom of my bag, because I couldn’t stand to throw out good produce one more time, but they sit next to a bar of chocolate because travel season wrecks my healthy intentions. My carryon is stuffed with the speech I haven’t yet gotten by heart, the insurance papers I haven’t figured out, and the manuscript I still haven’t edited though the deadline is this weekend. In order even to write this, I must ignore the ten, urgent, unanswered emails sitting on the next tab over.
I tell you all this because in this rare moment of (literally) suspended calm, I find myself contemplating the worth of doing hard things.
Everything in my life of late seems hard. Conference season is hard. It comes as a mix of marathon, disaster, and holiday. Writing is hard. My brain at the end of a working day feels like a mental sponge squeezed dry of every word, and my heart rate spikes at thought of all the work I have yet to do. Integrity is hard. To write about beauty is one thing, to make it amidst exhaustion and laundry with nerves frayed and tongue sharp is harder. Health is hard. To eat good food, to walk long miles, to seek out natural instead of processed food takes time, and thought, and a mighty dose of discipline. (Especially amidst travel.) Even loving God is hard. Turning my mind away from the many lists of things I need to do, the countless desires, the endless distractions in order to sit with my Bible and listen, listen to his whisper in the silence is one of the most difficult habits I have ever undertaken.
Hard, every bit of it. Hard every single day of my life.
Yet undeniably, unequivocally… good.