Monthly Archives: November 2007

Review: A Place on Earth

Gwen and I were talking about the luminous writing of Wendell Berry when I was at her house a few weeks ago. Being a native Kentuckian and fellow lover of literature, she introduced me to his books this spring with a birthday gift of his short stories. Entirely by accident, I found another of his books in the library at L’Abri this summer to continue my immersion and then borrowed one of Gwen’s collection during my visit. We were walking as we talked him over, out in the gold of late autumn trees. I was trying to put my finger on the rare state of mind his books always create in me.

“There’s a, well, I don’t know. I guess a sort of hush to his books,” I began.

“Yes.” said Gwen with sudden certainty. “That’s it!”

And I do believe she’s right. The writing of Wendell Berry is hushed in the way that my own life, lived in the circle of my own days is hushed. It’s quiet because it reflects, with expert artistry, the reality of real people in normal life. When I enter the world of a Berry novel, I am not whisked away to an exotic land or a romantically unrealistic setting. In fact, there is no whisking at all. Reading Berry is more of a settling down. It’s an immersion into the workaday thoughts of people who work and eat and love pretty much like me. Slow, like our own real days are slow, his stories build gradually, told often through the inner contemplation of his characters. I enter a cadence of living when I read his novels that enhances and shores up the rhythm of my own.

Most of Berry’s novels are set in the fictional Kentucky town of Port William, a small farming community set during and after WWII. A Place on Earth, the novel I just finished, focuses most on the hearts and minds of Matt Feltner, Margaret his wife, and Hannah, his daughter-in-law as they endure the slow loss of their son and husband who has been declared missing in WWII. I loved it because of its hush; there were very few points of sudden drama. The tale of grief was told slowly, following its rise in dark evenings and its slight waning in the normalcy of working days and other people. It was a story of loss, but also of building up again and the tale followed the seasons of these farm folk as the dark earth of their land as well as the earth of their own hearts was tilled, planted and harvested through a year of change. It’s not necessarily a happy story, but it’s a good story. Hard realities, broken-hearted facts are not ignored in Berry’s novels. But they are faced with a grace that rises up out of a lifestyle of hard work and community that, while never denying grief, yet seeks to move through it into a fragile hope.

From what I’ve read so far of Wendell Berry writing, I find a fictional portrayal of real life that is in many ways like a good poem; it takes the most ordinary elements of life, molding them with the fingers of deep contemplation, grief and a good bit of wonder that turns them into an object of unexpected grace. I am more able to live well after reading his writing. I feel heartened, in a really quiet way, in the enduring and loving of my own life in its odd balance of joy and struggle.

So. There’s a glimpse into my literary rambles of late. They’re hushed. But they sure do have a quiet joy.

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Of saints and angels

I am finally back. The feast has been gloriously had, the pie devoured, the long, winter walks taken and now I am here in the chill of a late evening to greet you. I hope your feasting was as sumptuous as could be hoped. Evening has grown old round my ears as I’ve sat working my brain back into the cadence of written words and now night is staring in at the window with black, enigmatic eyes. But in every shadowed pane of glass there is a wreath of glinting light, small points of golden brightness to sing out the advent of the brightest days of winter. I think the night is downright envious of my indoor, Christmas stars.

I feel ready to greet Christmas this year. In the past couple of years I have met this season with all the distracted elegance of a flustered hostess; entirely unprepared and frantically determined not to seem so. I scurried round in the usual circles of time honed tradition with a head only half present and a heart vaguely grieved by the flurry of it all. But I’m ready this year; I’ve set my house straight; got my thoughts in crisp order and opened my window to catch the calm, pearl light of steady contemplation.

I think it has a lot to do with my state of soul (I’ll be blogging soon about the, for me, revolutionary idea of “assenting” to my life as is). But it also has to do (of course) with some of my book companions. One in particular by a well-respected Christian writer who joined the Orthodox church with her husband. I heard Frederica Matthews Green speak at a conference a couple of years ago and was intrigued by her thoughts and the fact of her Orthodoxy.  On an impulse, I snatched a little gem of a book by her, The Open Door, that I found on Ebay describing her journey into Orthodoxy and her experience of icons. I stuck it on my shelf for future perusal. For some reason, it stood out to me when I was scanning my shelves for some Breckenridge reading and I took it with me to the mountains. My interest is persistently piqued by more liturgical traditions within the church and I was curious at the very least to find out what Frederica might have to say about icons.

But instead of a neat box of information, I found a journey into a form of contemplation that I had never encountered. With the winsome voice of a pilgrim storyteller, Frederica took me into the hushed beauty of an imaginary Orthodox church. She explained the significance of each picture on the “iconostasis” the main screen near the altar: the risen Christ, the Theotokos (literally, “birthgiver of God”), John the Baptist, and the resurrection. She explained how in her church, icons are seen as pictures of the story of which we are part, as a means through which we re-enter into and take part in that reality. With the explanation of each specific icon, she lingered in a chapter long contemplation into the story that the picture represented. She led me to those paintings (reproduced in the book) and left me there, whispering of God’s work, His glory, His presence in the lives of his people. She showed me how the contemplation of something that pictures the story of which I am part can lead me deeper into its reality, into the flesh and bloodness of its real existence in my life.

It is rare in this time to take a long while to look. It is rarer still to let the looking weave itself into thinking. I don’t know a whole bunch more about Orthodoxy, but as I enter the Christmas season I am keenly aware of the grace of re-entering the beauty of the salvation story. That books sticks with me, it’s images and thoughts cloaking me in a comfort of sacred remembrance. I find the stories popping up in my thought, companioning my mundanest moments with intimations of the glory just beyond me sight. And for that, I have to say thanks to this little book and the pictures it contemplates. It’s set me up to enter a month of celebration for the birth that began the great story and it’s prepared me to enter it with eyes wide open, with mouth hushed, with heart waiting to see what I will find.

It’s a good way to begin. So here I am. I hope you are also finding a way to quiet your heart and to remember the grace infusing this coming celebration. For now, I guess I’ll wish you goodnight as I am very sleepy. And just for fun, here’s my official first: Merry Christmas!

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Happy Thanksgiving!

I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder. ~G.K. Chesterton

May you all find the grace of God abundant in your lives today. He is so good.

Happy Thanksgiving!

 

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The Long Due Reward…

About a month ago, Brenda at Coffee, Tea, Books and Me awarded me a blogging award. Like her, I have decided to pass it on to a single person. There are many blogs I read that cause me to think deeply, to question, to live well. But there is only one blog written by the person who taught me how to do it day by day by day. I am giving this award to my mom over at her blog I Take Joy.

I have to name my mom because if we are going to discuss discipleship, well, she lives it. Beyond being simply my well-beloved mom and friend, she has made the mentoring of me a specific work throughout my growing up years. The reading of Scripture, the taking of long, exhilarating walks, the discussion of ideas, the exultation in beauty; she began it with me. But it is a work that she has extended to so many other women as well, especially through her writing and more lately through her blog.

The picture in her header on the site was taken on a rare family outing to Laguna Beach when we were out there for our conference. We had rambled for hours, climbing rocks, finding strange creatures and turquoise shells in the tidal pools. As the sun went down and we swished back through the sand, we were all suddenly running and laughing and my mom turned around and held out her arms… and was caught on camera by my brother Joel. That picture captures the essence of joy that has so blessed my life and filled it and the lives of a lot of other people.

So here’s to you Mom! You deserve many awards. But mostly I hope that all the beauty you’ve poured into us will be poured back into you.

 I Take Joy!

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Night Walk

Ah, the stars. Scattered through navy sky like celestial apple blossoms in spring; profuse, pristine, near tangible. Ah, the dark. Night unshattered by a city light, shadows pooled twixt lake and gathered pines. And us, huddled on the shore, mountains piled beneath the stars, air crisp. Mom and I crept out just after dusk to climb up to the reservoir just above our lodge. We felt free and kindled. To be out at night, to possess an unpeopled stillness is to touch something that transcends the dustiness of mundane life. It is the sort of experience that becomes a part of your breath and thought and sense. I feel that I live much of my life as a spectator, passing through scenes and days without engagement of my self. Nights like these reach out to me and reconnect my eyes, my heart, my breath to the present.

It is easy to love God with such a sight before you. We trudged through shadows, almost blind and felt the near hush of pines with their woven darkness. There is such incomprehensibility in a skyful of stars, so much dread and exhilaration in the looming dark of mountains. To believe in Creator God then is only just. I think he meant it to be that way. Sometimes I feel that the nagging sense of his absence with which I so wrestle is due to how separate I feel from an unfettered view of his creation. He is so near, so visible. But it takes a willful seeking out of his wildness to see it. I felt him so real tonight.

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A boy with music in his soul…

At any given moment in our house you can probably hear some distant rumble of music. We all of us are singing or playing or dancing our way up and downstairs in the course of the day. This can be a lovely thing. It can also be a nerve-wracking thing. Usually though, it’s the Clarkson mode of expression for the enjoyment of normal life.

But of late, I’ve noticed a more particular rhythm emanating from Joel’s corner of the basement. Joel is my 21-year old brother and best buddy who has been singing literally since he was a year old. There’s been a distant symphony of melody and beat rising up through the wood floors as he’s worked in “the dungeon” (the basement). He has pretty much taught himself guitar and piano, writing songs and singing his way through life for the last twenty years. But tonight, I discovered that he has pulled all his multiple talents together and has recorded some truly amazing music.

When you live with someone day after day it’s easy to miss the artistic genius hiding in the basement. It’s a brisk, bracing feeling to find such depth and beauty lurking in the soul of one’s brother. I am amazed! Such melody, such poetry, and he’s my brother! This is a boy who has music coursing through every corner of his soul and to hear it’s beauty expressed is heartening and strengthening and a dose of joy all at once. So, I simply can’t keep it to myself. I thought you too might enjoy a listen to Joel’s new music. Drop him a comment, if you will, and tell him what you think.

Anyway. I’m settling back into a few days of warm, autumn life (winter has yet to make a serious appearance) before heading up for our yearly sojourn in Breckenridge. We have six days in a cabin up there and we all trek up with a ridiculous amount of food and luggage to ski or write or simply wander as the muse takes us. On the home front, we’re celebrating the new, early darkness with a steady menu of hearty soups and fresh breads. The other two girls in the family head for TX for two days tomorrow and I’m planning to use the weekend to go and hibernate in a couple of coffee shops and pull my scattered brains together. Every now and then I have to make a day of recollection. There are so many great things to be done and thought and written and made. But they never seem to happen if I don’t take at least a few minutes to jot them down. So for now, enjoy some new music and may you have a day of recollection as well.

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Storm song

‘Twas a blue, storm and gold dappled morning in TN when I wrote this a couple of years ago. It’s always fun to visit the zest of a younger self. I remember walking out in the morning and watching the sun struggle with the rain and catch a single gold-leafed tree in its beams. It was a speech-stealing sight. I tried to jot down the sight and this poem was the result. I was reminded of it in KY as the trees there (thanks to an awful drought) are just now turning. Gwen and I would pass whole stands of golden trees on our twilight drives.

The wind was a song,
The trees, like girls,
Danced in the dawn,
Of an autumn world.

Golden their dresses,
Crimson their hair,
Graceful their swaying,
In rain-washed air.

Sweet was the wind-song,
The sun caught his tune,
Flung fingers of gold,
Through storm cloud gloom,

I watched, heart alive,
In that mystical dawn,
Caught the tune in my heart,
And took up the song.

And there you have it. Happy November day to you.

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