March 22, 2013
I’m writing from a seventh floor hotel room in Genoa, Italy. There were other days this week when I heard the bells, but today I looked out our window and saw them – past the chimneys, past the rooftop gardens, in a clock tower old and beautiful. The bells were swinging and ringing with an unstudied, unaffected joy.
During my college days in a Midwestern town, I found delight in the bell that rang each hour. No matter that it was really an eight-track projected from that clock tower on a hill; never mind that the real bell sat on display near the front steps below. I loved the sound, and felt my soul swelling at the idea of music high above.
I realize now that the measured tread of one recorded bell can never compare to the unsteady, lively cadence of real bells on a hill. I’m reminded of that verse in I Corinthians: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face….” I believe that while we breathe on this earth, it’s as if we walked through a garden of silk flowers and silk trees. True green and growing things, with all their cunning details and luscious textures and overwhelming fragrances, await those who love God in the life hereafter.
Perhaps you, too, have had those moments when just a thought, just a stray feeling, opens wide your suspicion that we have not yet seen the full picture. Are there enough musical notes to express how I feel when I gaze on a sunset? Are there ever enough colors to show how love feels when it’s real? (And – blissful thought – human love is nothing to what will overtake us when we see the face of God.)
As I travel in a foreign land, I miss my home and the people there; I miss friends and family scattered far and near. I know that someday I’ll miss places like Genoa that have claimed little pieces of my heart. So, I look forward to that day when the glass becomes transparent and I finally see God’s love as the tangible thing it is. I know it will be just like coming home… to every home I ever knew.
July 27, 2012
For bibliophiles, few adventures compare to crossing the threshold of a used bookstore. The musty air, overcrowded shelves, and tantalizing phrases on faded cloth spines always hint of buried treasure. My trip to the bookseller’s shop near Mecosta, Michigan was no exception. I remember stepping inside with a small band of college students, and exploring until an old brown volume caught my eye. The cover bore the name of a familiar author, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and a curious title: The Shuttle.
Like many girls, I read and loved Burnett’s The Secret Garden as a child. Until my trip to Mecosta, however, I didn’t realize that she had published a “grown up secret garden” several years prior to the classic children’s tale. The longer novel draws its motif from weaving shuttles, which carry yarn or thread back and forth across the looms in ever tighter, ever more complex patterns. The Shuttle tells of interwoven families and fates following the marriage of an American heiress and an Englishman of title (a not uncommon occurrence in the late nineteenth century).
The heroine of The Shuttle is the beautiful Bettina Vanderpoel, who journeys to England in search of her married older sister after years of family silence. Betty discovers a locked garden in her sister’s heart and languishing, unkempt grounds on her Stornham Court estate. To restore what has been forgotten and lost, Betty must challenge the cold, faithless Sir Nigel, who left her sister’s spirit to wither and their home to rot. With strong practicality and a sunlit countenance, Betty finally awakens spring in yet another dormant heart – in the fiery but downtrodden Lord Mount Dunstan.
* * *
This month, I was privileged to travel to Giverny, a small village in Normandy, France. There, impressionist Claude Monet lived for over forty years, cultivating his garden and capturing nature’s palette with his paintbrush and canvas. Following his death, Monet’s landscaping masterpiece became another “secret garden,” as family members passed away and preservation funds dwindled. Beloved trees died while weeds ran wild; trellises rusted and the famed bridge decayed. Then, restoration began in earnest, culminating in the summer of 1980 with a warm welcome to the public. Since then, art lovers from far and near have discovered the shady peace and blooming euphoria of the gardens at Claude Monet’s estate.
Loving hands keep green things growing in Giverny, just as they did in the beloved fictional worlds of writers like Frances Hodgson Burnett….
June 1, 2012
This time two years ago, I spent many warm afternoons walking precincts for a fine political candidate. Traversing neighborhoods high and low, I sometimes encountered those high end areas with sprawling front lawns and unspeakable square footage. I marveled at the massive gates blocking front doors, and at the strange sight of welcome mats behind locked bars. I came to the unscientific conclusion that larger homes have larger dogs, while deciding that abundance of wealth brings a heavy payload of fear.
Lost in these reflections, I encountered one large home where the atmosphere was wholly different. I heard a rustle in the rose planter, and caught sight of a rabbit scampering away. Stepping up to the wide, open porch, I admired the comfortable scene. An old church pew faced the mountains, offering an unspoken invitation to sit awhile. A flag, red wagon, and wheelbarrow evoked strong images of childhood summers; a rocking chair suggested a motherly influence. No one answered the door at that house, yet how I was tempted to linger there.
That tranquil scene was not unlike the beautiful woman described in Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman’s Soul (John and Stasi Eldredge). If God created women to reflect His glory, then beauty indwells each one of us. When we are willing to offer this beauty, to let down our defenses and reveal the mystery of a heart at peace, the effect is akin to those refreshing words, “Come and sit awhile.” A beautiful woman is at rest with herself, inviting others to be at rest with themselves as well. Fully present, she offers her heart and desires to know and treasure the hearts of others. This is the essence of Love.
* * *
Not many weeks after my campaign rambles, my brother and I surprised our Dad with a Father’s Day excursion to the “Rodeo Drive Concours d’Elegance” in Beverly Hills. While the men admired the glistening cars, I naturally turned my attention to the fantastic compositions of female clothing. In this crowd of women, where hairstyles and attire invariably spoke of money, the whole effect seemed jaded. I could not shake the impression that behind their hats and handbags, behind their purse dogs and slick husbands, these women were hiding.
Finally, I saw one young woman wearing heels, pearls, and a sleek black dress, with her hair pulled back in a pony tail. I cast a look of admiration her way, and she smiled back at me. It was a warm, genuine smile. I will always remember her as the most beautiful woman on Rodeo Drive.
So many women strive for perfection, driving their friends and relatives to work ever harder to compete. Their fear of not “having it together” condemns and threatens; such women are never safe. We, then, ought to become instead women of inner beauty, inviting others to find a home for their soul. In our spheres in this world today, we can be the ones who send the message of hope:
“All shall be well, and
All manner of thing shall be well.”
T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
April 27, 2012
Have you heard the dream-like song called “April Child”? The words and melody were written for Rigoletto, part of the Feature Films for Families collection.
Dear April child, are you dreaming of June?
Like a tender young flower awaiting summer’s bloom.
Sweet April child in the springtime of youth.
What a glorious season, it is yours, let it shine through….
Sweet April child, it’s the spring of your youth.
Cherish these precious days, summer comes all too soon….
Like peach blossoms in springtime, childhood seems almost ethereal. We try to capture the fleeting moments, as we celebrate the bittersweet changes through cultural rites of passage. Yet, in America, so many rites of passage have been lost, and the stages of childhood have become blurred. Many families expect children to talk and dress like teenagers, whether or not the youngsters have reached a thirteenth birthday.
By the time my hair was long enough to cut and style, my family had rejected the term “teenager.” Knowing this word was a product of the mid-twentieth century, I wondered. What had our forefathers recognized as the stages of childhood?
A compelling idea took hold of my young mind when I read Hawthorne’s short story, “The Great Stone Face.” In the story, a child is raised under the shadow of a mountain that has been carved by nature with human features. Studying this noble face, the sunny child grows into a gentle boy, who in turn becomes an upright, diligent young man. I noticed the progression, recalling the title of another nineteenth century book, Elsie’s Girlhood. Perhaps, “Beautiful Girlhood” and “All American Boyhood” were not just names of Vision Forum catalogs. Perhaps they were the answers I sought.
There is much in old books to confirm my suspicions. Once upon a time, “child,” “girl” and “boy” were not interchangeable, generic terms. Children referred to infants, toddlers, and grade school sons and daughters. Fashion history and art museums reveal that ruffles and dresses were appropriate for children of both genders, for a simple reason. Childhood was the time we learned speech, reading, writing, politeness, and religion – qualities that define our humanity. The fine-tuned qualities of manliness or womanliness, and the donning of distinctive apparel, came later in life.
Admission to boyhood or girlhood marked a turning point. Do you remember how Wendy is pressed to leave the nursery before her adventure with Peter Pan? No longer numbered among the children of the house, she must follow in her mother’s footsteps to learn the arts and expectations of womanhood. For a Scriptural analogy, we need only examine Luke 2:39-52. Searching for their child, Mary and Joseph are surprised to find the boy Jesus in the temple. There Jesus sits, earnestly listening and inquiring at the feet of his elders. The time has come for the boy to go about his Father’s business.
After many years, with a well-trained mind and strength of heart, a boy may take his final step toward adulthood. He may claim the hard-earned title of young man. A girl likewise, after years of preparation, may step into her role of young woman. Youthful confidence and mature prudence characterize this stage of life. Now of marriageable age, the young man and young woman may take the solemn vow with a nod of approval from their community.
This life, today, tomorrow, next year, is a gift. I’m not nostalgic for another era, but I do believe we have much to learn from the past. Shall we resurrect customs that imprison children in nurseries and bedeck small boys in ruffled coats? Certainly not. Might we, however, reclaim a few principles about growing up, about becoming a man, about when to marry? What if our culture measured maturity by selfless behavior instead of age… what if every man had a mentor before he braved the seas of life… what if faithfulness and diligence, not college degrees and loans, were the marks of young people considering marriage? We all desire to see great men and women rise up in this land. With that worthy end in sight, we must first restore a right view of childhood.
February 10, 2012
On the other side of the mountain, a quiet town waits. The men are stone-faced, while their women brood. Together they wait for release from thirst, and wearily yearn for sounds of water.
The river that ought to freely flow is held up by an inexplicable dam. No one can guess the reason it stands. The names of the builders are long forgotten.
How often we live in the shadow of real and invisible walls. Few remember who laid the first stone, yet there the barricade scowls, unbending as ever. A way through the towering rubble is found, however, when we reach out to meet needs other than our own.
One book refers to this attainable magic as a “yes spiral.” Whatever the moniker, a way of life marked by selfless words and action is a mighty force. It can heal a friendship; it can save a marriage. With a slow and sure strength, it will chip away at the old, ugly dam, ‘till once-parched families feel thirst no more.
I’m sure you agree that creative, lasting romance – the kind that begins by saying “yes” – is hardly a trinket for February 14th. It is a treasure to handle with contentment and devotion throughout the year to come.
January 23, 2012
As a girl, I discovered a thin, 1980s paperback called Disciplines of the Beautiful Woman. In these pages, pastor’s wife Anne Ortlund shares her advice for over-stretched women: eliminate and concentrate. I read the words over and over. Go deep in a few relationships, instead of spreading yourself too thin. Focus your efforts on a few interests or hobbies, and leave behind a legacy of excellence.
The message appealed to me, and still attracts me today. “Read well, not widely,” is the similar mantra of Adler and Van Doren. As I revisit their classic literary handbook, How to Read a Book, I note the sharp-edged criticism. “A person who has read widely but not well deserves to be pitied rather than praised.”
Truly, “eliminate and concentrate” works wonders on the small scale. I’ve enjoyed a few successes in past months, as I pared down my wardrobe, Christmas ornaments, college photos, and recipe cards. Yet, life on the grand scale is not so easily sorted; isolated events, errands, conversations, and tasks seldom fall into neat categories. Often, I fail to see a connecting, over-arching purpose, and this can leave me feeling frustrated and fragmented.
The search for a unifying factor is timeless. In all of life’s activities and reposes, mental highs and physical lows, humankind seeks a meaning. We crave this meaning, and thus we face a choice. I can define all aspects of life in relation to me – my personality, aspirations, emotions, and opinions – but then I would be worse than the old, earth-centered scoffers of Copernican cosmology. How much better to define this eclectic, unpredictable thing called life by the God who ordained it.
“Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.” My search leads me here. But the journey is only just begun.
December 8, 2011
By 1864, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had achieved wide renown and a successful income through his poetry. While the world acclaimed him as an American success, his own heart bore the weight of tragedy. His wife, Frances, had died three years prior, and the future seemed bleak as their eldest son trudged across the battlefields of the Civil War. Yet, on that Christmas Day of 1864, Longfellow penned the words which later became a classic holiday hymn. May this song inspire you (as it does me) to rejoice in every circumstance, for “God is greater than our heart” (I John 3:20).
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
November 14, 2011
Some books can spoil readers with details, descriptions, flashbacks and footnotes. Then, there is Hemingway. His short story “Hills Like White Elephants” is rather like the unmarked script of a play. With neither pages of back story nor physical descriptions, he gives us just the “man” and the “girl,” a nameless couple on a railway platform, sorting through their lives in sensuous, sweltering, post World War I Spain. The actress within me is intrigued. I yearn to understand these characters, to discover the tones of their dialogue, and as fancy may strike me to design their set.
I imagine the girl in those long, lonely years when she waited for life to begin. Now the story has opened. She is center stage. She is lovely, and soul-weary; she wonders if there is really no more to life than to “look at things and try new drinks.”
She fingers a curtain of beads in her hand, and plays with the thought of turning back time. If only things were just the way they were, when they measured their love in tongues of hot, rosy flame. If only things were like they were before, when a girlish word and laughter could make the man her slave.
Looking out on the world, she wants only to hold it, to know its beauty, its wonders, its spells and its charms. Yet her world has been marred, and her innocence lost. “Once they take it away, you never get it back.”
And, there sits the man who might have opened her world. A man of two continents, he has tasted all things yet never drunk deep. He cares for her, but not for “it.” His core of self can admit a place for the lover, but not for new life born of their love.
A train arrives; two faces disappear. I wonder how their story will end. I wonder how many girls of no name – yesterday, today, and tomorrow – give up everything to “turn back time”
Yes, it takes courage to choose life over self, to exchange known comforts for unknown beauty and rewards. So we remember, as C.S. Lewis wrote, “There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”
October 23, 2011
There was an era, not so long ago, when the spirit of exploration and adventure roamed the high seas. Oil lamps burned on tables at home while men battled with monsters upon the waves. From the Great Lakes to the uncharted wastelands of Antarctica, each journey evoked uncertainty, as sure as a roll of the dice. Yet classic poems, sea-songs, and narratives reveal a burning spirit of hope, the kind that prevails against unspeakable odds.
“The Sailor and His Bride”by Isabella Valency Crawford (1850-1887)
“Let out the wet dun sail, my lads,
The foam is flying fast;
It whistles on the fav’ring gale,
To-night we’ll anchor cast.
What though the storm be loud, my lads,
And danger on the blast;
Though bursting sail swell round and proud,
And groan the straining mast;
The storm has wide, strong wings, my lads,
On them our craft shall ride,
And dear the tempest swift that brings
The sailor to his bride.”
“Fear not the tempest shrill, my heart,
The tall, white breakers’ wrath;
I would not have the wild winds still
Along the good ship’s path.
The ship is staunch and strong, my heart,
The wind blows to the strand;
Why tremble? for its fiercest song
But drives the ship to land.
Be still, nor throb so fast, my heart,
The storm but brings, betide
What may to ship and straining mast,
My sailor to his bride.”
September 19, 2011
While celebrating our anniversary, my husband and I recently wandered into a small gift shop. Amused, we picked up a book about brides and their beloved wedding plans. Apparently, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman will exhaust more time, sweat and tears on her wedding plans than will her male counterpart. The book attributes this phenomenon to some sort of feminine “rite of passage.” I can understand this line of thought.
The year of 2010 witnessed a host of mischievous bands intruding upon my parents’ household: a small army of votive candles, a happy troupe of silk flowers, a whirlwind array of bright papers and ribbons, and a luscious company of fine apparel and accessories. Why mischievous, you ask? Quite frankly, these dear objects will never organize, tidy, and arrange themselves. Such is woman’s work.
Thus, I watched (sometimes helped) the magic that unfolds when women create. In Carey’s hands, flyaway beads and threads on our antique dress became neat and pristine. Sandy’s cathedral veil vision transformed a pile of tulle and lace, while Emily handcrafted a unique set of jewelry. Anne, meanwhile, stitched seven modest and flattering gowns with only pictures as guides. Says Anne, “Who needs patterns?”
Most exciting were the days (and they were many) when my own Marmee rolled up her sleeves. Each centerpiece was wonderfully unique. No two pale pink and forest green invitations were exactly alike. Yet all spoke of beauty, tenderness, and care… just like the home that had sheltered me always… just like the marriage I hoped to create.
Times of transition are never easy; an engagement is no exception. Yet, I will always cherish the wedding planning season, when I observed young mothers, widows, and middle-aged mothers with daughters, all plying their creative and painstaking trades. I noted their gracious ways of helping others. I felt their joy in a job well done. And I hoped to emerge from my “rite of passage” with not only a new name, but a woman’s heart to match.